The Ethics of Hacking

by Rick Rockwell

The British media provided an interesting window in the past week to glimpse into the complex world of hacking.  While media vilified those arrested and accused in the on-going News of the World hacking scandal that threatens the foundation of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp empire, The Guardian was cheered for its publishing coup of revealing the inner thoughts of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, gleaned from his hacked e-mail account.

To add complexity to these different views of how the media should use material provided through hacking, The Guardian was also at the center of the News of the World scandal, shedding light on the allegations against its competitor the News of the World in a time when Murdoch and his empire seemed untouchable and other media outlets reacted more timidly.

But what last week also revealed is that The Guardian wants to have it both ways.  It wants to condemn the use of hacking when those being spied upon and having their material taken are seen as victims, or heroes of society.  But when the target of the hacking is someone seen as a villain, they want to use the very same techniques against them. This is the slippery slope to the double standard.

Does this mean defending Assad and Murdoch? No. But this is why The Guardian has few critics when it comes to how it views the use of hacking as a journalistic tool.  Who wants to appear to be on the side of a dictator and a tainted media mogul?

Before getting into the details of this argument though, some context is necessary.

Allegations of hacking cell phones and computers by reporters or investigators employed by News of the World go back at least to 2000.  Originally, the scandal was thought to be confined to a few employees who hacked the electronic voice mail accounts of members of the British Royal Family in 2005, particularly Prince William, along with various sports and media personalities. Those employees pled guilty and served short sentences in 2007, and that could have been the end of it.  However, police opened a new investigation called Operation Weeting, which is still ongoing, against News of the World and other Murdoch media properties in 2011; the investigation has revealed a wider culture of using hacking as a journalistic tool.  The investigation revealed that thousands were targets of phone hacking, including families of crime victims, families of veterans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, families of victims of the London subway bombings, along with politicians (including members of Parliament), and celebrities.  As advertisers dropped News of the World due to the scandal, Murdoch closed the paper.  The scandal also revealed connections between journalists employed by Murdoch media outlets and the Metropolitan Police in London, including allegations of police bribery for inside information and possibly police collusion in a cover-up.  Not only has British Prime Minister David Cameron’s cozy relationship with some of Murdoch’s top lieutenants been revealed by the scandal but in reaction Cameron has launched at least two other independent investigations into police and journalistic corruption.  Murdoch and his son, James, a top New Corp official testified before Parliament to answer questions about the scandal.  The U.S. Justice Department has also launched two inquiries into whether News Corp may have used the same practices in the U.S. or may have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

The practices at Murdoch-owned outlets were not just unethical but obviously illegal.  Rupert and James Murdoch are either incompetent for their poor oversight of their media empire or they are complicit.  What this all boils down to is a culture that accepted invasion of privacy and theft of information.  That’s what hacking is all about.

What the scandal also showed is the vulnerability of just about anyone in the digital age and how easily sensitive information can be found by determined hackers.  The Guardian exposed all that and demonstrated how its competitors buckled to the temptation of using hacking as a journalistic short cut.

But now comes The Guardian’s publication of the Assad e-mails.  Here is the editors’ explanation:

We believe a number of disclosures, including evidence of Assad taking advice from Iran and receiving detailed briefings on the situation in Homs, are of clear public interest. Given the nature of the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on the Syrian people, we believe the more detailed picture of the workings of Assad’s inner circle that emerges from the mails, and the extent to which he and his wife have managed to sustain their luxurious lifestyle, are also of public interest. The Guardian did not solicit the material.

Yes, the material is in the public interest and yes, The Guardian did not solicit the stolen e-mails.  But that does not absolve the publication from promoting hacking.  The e-mails were stolen.  Publishing them is akin to fencing stolen property.  Certainly, the view from London or Washington, D.C. is sympathetic to The Guardian, but what of the view from Moscow, or Beijing, or Tehran?  This is all a matter of perspective.  In an ethical discussion, the editors of The Guardian should have asked would they have used the same justification to publish stolen material from Prince William?  Hasn’t the News of the World scandal answered that question for them?  Weren’t some of the revelations there also in the public interest?

Evaluate the worth of the information in the e-mails and the result is mostly sensation.  The biggest buzz was about Assad’s love of sappy country music, his wife’s interest in expensive shoes, and how they seemed isolated and removed from the brutal realities of their crackdown on dissent by their luxurious lifestyle.  Yes, the e-mails confirm what we have known for decades, that Iran and Syria have a close alliance and that the Syrian military is a tool to maintain the Assad dictatorship.  But did we need hacking to confirm that?

In this digital age, couldn’t the Syrian opposition simply have been left to throw up their own website to publish these revelations?  Couldn’t they have let an outlet like Wikileaks publish the Assad e-mails?  What the Syrian opposition needed for greater political resonance was a journalistic platform to give these hacked e-mails credibility.  The Guardian has provided that platform.

This is not to excuse any of the human rights violations or other crimes of the Assad regime.  But two wrongs do not make a right.  Publishing stolen material abets the original crime.  Journalists should refrain from using information provided by hackers because it not only encourages more hacking but the material is polluted by the process of how it was attained.  Inevitably, the journalists are used by the hackers for the hackers’ own ends.  Such publication also fails the test of the Golden Rule (an ethical principle found not only in Greek literature but ancient Chinese writing):  substitute the name of any British royal for Assad in this case and the flaw in the reasoning at The Guardian is revealed.  For those who wonder if it is wrong to steal from a dictator, perhaps that moral equation might be helpful.

Hacking is increasingly a tool used not just in the political arena against opponents,  (Former Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska had her e-mail hacked during her campaign for vice president in 2008.) but also by governments.  Chinese hacking teams have invaded both government and corporate computer systems to steal information, although the Chinese government denies it employs hackers.  Pro-Chavez hackers have attacked the e-mail accounts of opposition candidates in Venezuela.  (For more please see: “Hacking for Hugo:  Cyberattacks, Twitter & Venezuelan Politics.”)  Both sides in the Syrian conflict have employed hackers too.  (For more please see: “RT vs. Al Jazeera:  The Propaganda War Over the Syrian Revolt.”)

Journalists need to resist the temptation of aiding and abetting whatever cause is employing this illegal and unethical practice.  The Guardian may be reaping the praise and increased circulation from its Assad exposé, but it fails at establishing standards that need to emerge from the News of the World hacking scandal.

(The photo graphic is by Don Hankins via Flickr using a Creative Commons license.)

About rickrockwell2011

Rick Rockwell is the Director of the School of Communication’s International Media program at American University. Rockwell is an award-winning journalist and author. His book, Media Power in Central America, won an award from the American Library Association. Please see the additional links for a full profile.
This entry was posted in "The Guardian", Arab Spring, Bashar al-Assad, China, Corruption, David Cameron, Ethics, Hackers, Hugo Chavez, James Murdoch, Journalism, News Corp., Rupert Murdoch, Syria, U.K. Parliament, United Kingdom, Venezuela and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.