Hacking vs Leaking

When Edward Snowden left for Hong Kong with a trove of documents he took from the NSA, his stated motive for doing so was to protect privacy.

I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.

At the time, I thought it might provide an opportunity to have a broad discussion about what privacy means and how our understanding of it has changed. Today almost all of our professional lives and much of our personal lives take place on the internet. Breeches to our privacy don’t come solely from the government. Companies like Google and marketing firms have access to more detailed information about us than we ever dreamed possible. The idea that anyone who uses the internet has a modicum of what we used to think of as privacy is completely passé. Beyond that, it often seems as if the big concern on social media is not an issue of privacy, but a fear that what we think/do/say will actually NOT be heard. Unfortunately, these topics didn’t receive much attention.

Last week the organization that – at minimum – aided Edward Snowden in finding asylum in Russia (Wikileaks) released a trove of almost 20,000 emails that were taken from the DNC server. Included was the release of supposedly private communication/information from many individuals. That is why I find this distinction from Franklin Foer to be important.

What’s galling about the WikiLeaks dump is the way in which the organization has blurred the distinction between leaks and hacks. Leaks are an important tool of journalism and accountability. When an insider uncovers malfeasance, he brings information to the public in order to stop the wrongdoing. That’s not what happened here. The better analogy for these hacks is Watergate. To help win an election, the Russians broke into the virtual headquarters of the Democratic Party. The hackers installed the cyber-version of the bugging equipment that Nixon’s goons used—sitting on the DNC computers for a year, eavesdropping on everything, collecting as many scraps as possible. This is trespassing, it’s thievery, it’s a breathtaking transgression of privacy.

I agree. And Americans should be outraged.

What has often been frustrating for me in watching the civil liberties activists engage on the issue of privacy is that they think our only concern should be government surveillance. What we see is that an organization like Wikileaks has completely turned the tables and become the entity that threatens our privacy. In order to sort this out, we’re going to have to do a better job of making the distinction between leaks and hacks.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.