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Sunday, December 17, 2017

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Paradise Papers show weakened government cybersecurity


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The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists recently shared information obtained by a German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, containing classified documents from a hacking of two offshore service providers, Appleby and Asiaciti Trust.

Already, the information contained in the data dump, termed the Paradise Papers, is being scourged to the dismay of many high-profile names in politics, business and even entertainment. This leak is not the first shared by the ICIJ; the nonprofit and its international network of journalists have participated in a number of high-profile leaks, such as the Panama Papers, Offshore Leaks and Bahamas Leaks.

To tell the truth, this compromise of ethics might be well worth the good that potentially could come from the leak, but it is a compromise nonetheless. The ICIJ states that it assesses the value of the documents it releases, has a fairly lengthy vetting process and does not release all the information obtained in its entirety.

It also states that it does not “release personal data en masse,” which is a nicer way of saying “unless the person’s name is big enough.” Still, this is a more ethical approach compared to the indiscriminate leaks of personal and private information of no public benefit from data breaches that occur frequently these days.

The reason these data dumps are still a somewhat unethical practice is that reporters could be using information that may have been obtained by illegal means. What’s less obvious is that the anonymous sources, unauthenticated documents and ulterior motives are aspects of news that journalists are tasked with scrutinizing and investigating.

The Paradise Papers situation is more palatable for a number of reasons. For one, the ICIJ is a nonprofit organization, not a for-profit media conglomerate. The second is the time that was taken to verify the information, instead of just being thrown up to meet reader-demand with a disclaimer attempting to absolve its publisher of the burden to verify.

On paper, this is unethical. It is ironic, however, that government officials and private companies don’t consider it unethical to collect unprecedented amounts of information about the average citizen, who frequently get hacked, but are upset when the roles are reversed.

There is no federal shield law, which makes it challenging for reporters to protect their sources and heightens the level of mistrust for both parties involved. A federal shield law would provide a national legal protection for journalists and keep them from being forced to name their sources. In the meantime, anonymity is implicitly encouraged.

The press has also grown increasingly despondent from Washington and the White House, starting with former President Barack Obama and growing to new heights with President Donald Trump. This despondency presents a challenge to reporters, and corporations are equally as dismissive about inquiries.

Digging up information has become a major challenge in an era filled with fake news, data saturation, disappearance of jobs and the continuous consolidation of news and media companies.
Relayed data dumps and leaks of this sort are a way of saying, “We don’t really have the time to verify this in its entirety, but go ahead and check it out yourself.”

Unethical? Yes, but it’s an outgrowth of the way the industry is at the moment. The 24-hour news cycle coupled with a decrease in available journalists and a proliferation of data is bound to try to make investigative journalists out of the average reader, a way of meeting in the middle.

If these leaks helped people understand an issue of public importance, then the argument could be used that the ends justified the means, but that is always a binary argument marred with hypocrisy.

That being said, privacy is not necessarily an absolute right, especially when it involves players who are either elected by the public or benefit from bypassing the system into which the public is paying. Private individuals have been granted less privacy as time has moved forward, and that’s just in the United States.

For the time being, I suggest these individuals consult with the privacy laws guaranteed by their local tax havens.

Opinion columnist Nicholas Bell is an MBA candidate and can be reached at [email protected]

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