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By Thomas Baekdal - December 2014

Hacked Information Cannot be Used in Stories

Over the past week, there has been a lot of talk about the Sony hack, in which quite an astonishing amount of deeply internal documents was hacked and published online. And, not surprisingly, pretty much every major news outlet have, in some form of fashion, been going through this data to see if they could find stories to write about.

The problem in doing so is that it causes the press to take advantage of criminal activity to get a story, which causes us to ask whether newspapers should be doing that or not.

For instance, The Verge is now trying to justify their use of the data in "Why we're reporting on Sony's leaked info: A note from the entertainment editor."

The Sony leak is a story that lands at the intersection of tech, business, and entertainment; in other words, right in The Verge's wheelhouse. But we missed some of the first big stories to come out of the Sony leaks, and if that goes down in our history as a loss, then as an editor I take at least partial responsibility.

[...] I cover the entertainment industry for a living, but the net value of what was coming out of Sony wasn't immediately apparent to me - precisely because of where it came from.

[...] We ended up aggregating a lot and breaking a few of these stories anyway, in an unspoken, admittedly not terribly well-examined agreement that the floodgates had already been opened. The inciting event was further and further in the rearview. But the question was on everyone's minds the further we delved into the leak: what's the difference between being the first to publish information from the leak and merely reposting it?

You see what's going on here?

This has nothing to do with Sony, nor the people involved, and not even whether this in the public interest or not. These stories are published because the media likes the idea of publishing. It's the "look at me, look what I got" mentality.

Sony is, obviously, trying to put a stop it, just like Jennifer Lawrence tried to stop it when it happened to her.

So, the question is, should the press be allowed to publish information obtained via hacking? And with that I mean, criminal burglary by a 3rd person.

The press will always try to rationalize why they do it, using arguments like it is in the public interest, and that it is an important element of transparency. But you know the old saying:

It's all fun and games until it happens to you.

We only have to look at the newspapers who have been hacked to see how they respond in those cases. In every single case, the media that was hacked is suddenly all against it, and will try everything it can to stop the damage from spreading.

So, this one question is really two questions. The first question is: If it happened to you, do you still believe the press should be allowed to write about it?

The answer to that is obvious. No, that is not okay. That information is not for public consumption, and it's definitely not in the public interest regardless of how many people who might be interested in it.

Again, it's all fun and games until it happens to you.

The second thing is to ask: What kind of world do we want to live in?

These types of hacking cases are on the rise, and they are getting worse. And the reason why they happen is because of two reasons.

The first reason is that it gives the hackers a 'rush'. This is the digital equivalent of smoking pot. A hacker hacks into some random brand to get famous, and the resulting press is what creates the rush.

The second reason is that it's done to damage a company by taking something that should not be made public, and putting it in the hands of the press. This was exactly what happened to Sony. The people who hacked them did so precisely for the sake of how much damage that would cause in the hands of the media.

In both cases, the tool used to cause the damage is not the hack itself but the media. The hackers are acting in the way they are, explicitly for the sake of the attention it creates. And the media is the tool that creates the most attention of all.

The actions of the media are very much responsible for the growth in hacking cases. If the media didn't cover those stories, the hackers wouldn't get the same level of rush.

Thus, it comes down to the question if we want to live in a world like that? What kind of society and culture do we want to encourage?

My answer to this is simple. I do not want to encourage or be a part of such a world. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the media should not only stop publishing those types of stories, it should also be made illegal by law.

Digital crime is one of the most expensive forms of crime in the world today, and something we need to address. So I believe that anyone republishing information obtained through digital burglary (hacking), either directly or indirectly, should be classified as being an accessory to burglary. And I believe such a law should apply to anyone, regardless if they are members of the press or just an ordinary person.

And this includes not just the hacked data itself, but also what the data is about.

In the case of Sony, this mean that you are only allowed to publish that Sony was hacked, but you would become an accessory to burglary if you divulged any information what that hack contained.

Remember, the hackers are using you as a journalist. You are their tool.

3rd party versus 1st party

So far, we have looked at hacking done by a 3rd person, as in a person outside the company breaking in to their digital homes and giving or selling that information off to other 3rd parties (like the press).

But there is another type, which is the act of leaking by a 1st party.

Imagine that an employee discovers that the CEO is cheating their customers. And then also imagine that this employee gets so upset about it that he decides to leak several internal documents to the press that reveals the wrongdoing. In other words, he becomes a whistleblower.

Should the press be allowed to write about that?

Yes, of course. Whistleblowing, in my opinion is not a criminal activity because it's not done by a 3rd party. It's information revealed by the very people who had that information as part of their job.

It represents a lack a trust between the employee and the CEO (and if the CEO found out who leaked it, the employee would surely be fired), but we should not consider that to be criminal activity.

And, in the same sense, I have no problem with the press writing stories based on leaked information from a 1st party. It's not based on theft.

But, wait-a-minute, I hear some of you say. What if a hacker (3rd party) happened to come across information revealing that the CEO was acting in an illegal way. Surely the press then has a responsibility to write about it?

Well, yes... and no.

I agree that we should not allow information about wrongdoings (especially the criminal kind) to just happen. But, that doesn't change the fact that we cannot continue this culture of encouraging hackers.

In the case of hacking, it's not the responsibility of the press to write a story about it, but to report the wrongdoings to the police. They, in turn, can then act upon that information.

But you cannot write a story with information that was obtained through acts of burglary. That makes you an accessory to burglary and can never be justified regardless of how much you want to write that story.

Writing about things that was revealed to you via 1st party leaks (aka whistleblowing) is fully acceptable (and often necessary). Writing about things that was revealed to you via 3rd party burglary isn't. Regardless of the circumstances.

Of course, the other exception being that it's fair game when it comes to public institutions, public officials (in their public role) and governments. The reason being that the Government works for the public.

Everyone is a journalist

I will add one final thing that is important for this discussion, which is the future role of the media. In the media world we constantly see this sense of the press being the "Fourth Estate".

Originally, these estates were defined as:

The idea being the press was an independent power who kept the first two estates from suppressing the third. It was the protector of democracy.

The modern version of this might instead be described like this:

But what about the fourth?

Most newspapers today are much less about being a fourth estate and much more about running a business. When BuzzFeed or The Verge, for instance, published internal information from Sony, did they do so as a fourth estate or as a business trying to build traffic?

You see the problem?

Secondly, in a connected world, everyone is a journalist. There is no difference between a journalist writing a story about information from Sony, and a random person doing the same thing on Tumblr. The information and the action are the same, regardless of how you think of it.

How we can have a fourth estate if everyone is in it?

I think this an important question to bring into this debate. Much of the discussion about whether the press should be allowed to do something or not is based on the this principle that it is a unique entity separated from everyone else.

But this isn't how the world works anymore. Everyone is now a journalist, and the act of journalism is not unique nor separate from anything else.

Instead of asking if journalists should have the right to publish information obtained via someone breaking into another's home, ask if people, in general, should have that right.

The answer, of course, is no.

Just as you are not allowed to buy and use a bicycle that you know is stolen, you also cannot use information obtained via hacking. There is no difference between the two. Both are forms of theft, which you are encouraging through its use.

To me, this is a very simple principle. We must encourage a culture where hacking doesn't provide the hackers with the exposure they so desperately seek. And we must protect those being hacked, by making sure we do not further victimize them by revealing what was hacked.

In short: No, the press should not be allowed to write stories based on stolen data. It makes you an accessory to theft.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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