Why Wikileaks is Wrong
I’m surprised to see entirely reasonable people I know pondering whether the Wikileaks release of diplomatic cables was ethical. Is this like The Pentagon Papers, they ask? I’m puzzled because to me it’s obviously not. And anyone in my undergraduate “Computers, Society, and Professionalism” class can tell you why.
As part of our class discussion of professionalism for software engineers, we review criteria for whistleblowing. Our textbook, Ethics for the Information Age by Michael Quinn, offers these suggestions and insights. My teaching notes say:
- Work within the system first–there’s usually another way.
- Misguided protests can be damaging too–make sure you’re sure.
- Help people save face.
- Think clearly about what really matters and look for compromise.
Quinn quotes Richard De George’s five questions to ask before whistleblowing:
- “Do you believe the problem may result in ‘serious and considerable harm to the public’?
- Have you told your manager your concerns about the potential harm?
- Have you tried every possible channel within the organization to resolve the problem?
- Have you documented evidence that would persuade a neutral outsider that your view is correct?
- Are you reasonably sure that if you do bring this matter to public attention, something can be done to prevent the anticipated harm?”
(De George, quoted in Quinn fourth edition, p. 429).
De George says that if you answer yes to the first three questions, you may consider whistleblowing. If you answer yes to all five, you may have an ethical obligation to whistleblow. Of course these are written from the point of view of an employee considering reporting wrong doing in their company to outsiders, but the criteria still hold.
What serious harm to the public is Wikileaks trying to prevent? In what ways have they tried to work within the system first? It all doesn’t add up. On the other hand, the release of The Pentagon Papers quite clearly meets these criteria.
There are all kinds of negative consequences of the release of this information. Ignoring political implications of the specific content, the most serious consequence is a likely decrease openness and sharing within the US government. People will spend more time being paranoid, waste effort on more elaborate security procedures, and be less able to collaboratively make sense of what is going on in the world, and develop a coherent strategy. I believe in the good faith of the US government and the sincere intentions of our civil servants to make the world a better place for all nations. But even assuming you are the deepest cynic who doubts the US’s basic intentions, you can’t seriously believe that an increase in our cluelessness will help, can you? Regardless of your political leanings or nationality, this is a negative outcome for everyone.
p.s. And I really wish they wouldn’t call it “wiki.” This has nothing to do with wikis.
Addendum: Wikileaks vs. Bradley Manning
As folks point out in the comments, I think my problem is more with Bradley Manning (the person who released the information) than with Wikileaks.