Hacked Emails: Privacy vs Transparency

When Edward Snowden leaked the NSA documents, his stated motive was to protect privacy. Given the nature of the information he released, the ensuing questions that were raised all focused on the threat of government invasion of our privacy. I always thought that conversation was too limited. With the advent of the internet, corporate invasion of our privacy is an issue as well. And with the explosion of social media, it seems to me that a lot of people are more concerned about getting people to pay attention to their private lives than they are about keeping secrets. Has that changed the boundaries of what we mean by “privacy?”

A lot of new questions have been raised with the Wikileaks release of troves of DNC and private emails. We know that Julian Assange (founder of Wikileaks) has an agenda in this presidential election that is driving his involvement. And we also know that the hacking is very likely being coordinated and/or driven by Russia’s attempt to intervene in the election as well. That raises serious concerns for journalists reporting on this story. Kevin Drum addressed it this way:

There’s evidence that the hack was directed by a foreign power trying to influence the US election. The leak itself came from an organization that detests one of the candidates. And they’re playing a transparently too-clever-by-half game of trying to keep this in the news for weeks by parceling out the emails a few thousand at a time.

Leaks often have a partisan motive, but this one is self-evidently hyper-partisan. So should news organizations allow themselves to be used as pawns in this obvious effort to affect the presidential election? If they do, they can hardly pretend to be neutral channels of information. But if they don’t, they risk failing to report genuinely important news.

In some ways, it reminds me of that time when VP Cheney and his staff leaked falsified information to journalists like Judith Miller in order to sway public opinion in support of the Iraq War. There is an agenda at work here and it is important for the media to keep that in mind to avoid being played.

But beyond that, Chris Hayes and Glenn Greenwald had a fascinating discussion about this last night. Hayes wanted to talk about the kinds of questions Drum raised and Greenwald split it into two issues: (1) journalists don’t care what the motives are for hacking/leaking information, they just care about the contents, and (2) who hacked/leaked is a separate story. There is some truth in that, but I don’t think it’s really that simple.

Then Greenwald launched a question that might be even more pertinent, given that we are now talking about hacked private emails. He said that journalists have to ask themselves: “Is this person powerful enough to justify the invasion of privacy from publishing and is the material enough in the public interest?” That prompted a very significant question from Hayes: “Does John Podesta have a right to privacy?” Greenwald responded by saying that he had a lesser right to privacy than the average person on the street due to the fact that he is powerful.

That gives journalists a lot of power to draw the line about who is powerful enough to lose their privacy. And it creates an interesting feedback loop about whether that makes journalists powerful enough to lose their privacy. Where does one draw the line? Who holds those who have been given that kind of power accountable? Where is the transparency in their decision-making?

Since we’re talking about hacking/leaking emails, it is also important to note that in this last instance it wasn’t just John Podesta who lost his privacy in service of the kind of transparency Greenwald is talking about. It was people like the woman whose contemplation of suicide was discussed in an email sent to John Podesta. She lost her privacy as well. Thanks to the hackers/leakers, that story is now out there in the public domain being hashed out in right wing media as a way to blame the Clintons.

These questions aren’t going to go away. Personally, I don’t have the kind of confidence in our media that Greenwald seems to have that would give them all the power to answer them on our behalf. But I’m also not willing to let people like Vladimir Putin or Julian Assange inspire us to give up our Constitutional right to a free press simply because they have decided to manipulate it.

As consumers of the news, we all have a role to play in this. You’ll notice that I have chosen to not write about the Podesta emails as a story in themselves. To apply Greenwald’s test: leaking them was a clear invasion of privacy that was not outweighed by anything significant in the public interest. Our collective power to respond to those questions comes in the form of what we chose to click/watch/read combined with a trip to the polling booth in a few weeks.  Over the long haul, we need to have a lot more conversation about this.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.