Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wikileaks and the CRU e-mail hack

The latest Wikileaks release presents an important ethical challenge to the climate change blogs and the community as a whole.

Is it ethical to read and blog about the leaked cables, when at the same time condemning the CRU e-mail hack or "Climategate"? In both cases, the subject matter are messages that were i) stolen, ii) intended to be private, and iii) written by government employees. Not to mention that in both cases many of the message can easily be taken out of content.

Is this a false equivalence, or a potential case of hypocrisy?


silence said...

There are some similarities, but there are a couple of important differences:
1. In the US, it is not illegal to publish leaked material. By contrast, the CRU hack involves a 3rd party gaining access, and then publishing it.
2. Wikileaks goes out of their way to avoid presenting information out of context. From what I can tell, they're publishing everything they have which doesn't obviously pose a risk of physical harm. Obviously, they can't prevent out-of-context quotes, but they're doing their best to give people context. This is markedly different from the CRU hack, where we saw some very selective editing prior to release.

Rocco said...

Since when is reading and blogging unethical? Stealing and lying is unethical. I don't see climate change community having problem with that.

Anonymous said...

I think that the morality of leaking/hacking is very context dependent. What expectation of privacy was there with the communication? Did the communication involve illegal/unethical actions of public importance? And what are the implications of the release on the public good (both negative and positive)?

For ClimateGate, there was an expectation of privacy, any illegality/unethicalness was minor and banal, and the implications of the release were possibly to slow the adoption of climate change legislation (bad, but opinions differ), possibly to chill honest scientific discourse (bad), possibly to lead to more openness of datasets (good, mostly), and to really ruin a few individuals lives (bad). Overall: not worth it.

For Wikileaks, there was an expectation of privacy (perhaps even stronger), it is still unclear what level of illegality/unethicalness was involved - perhaps more than ClimateGate, but less than the Pentagon Papers, and the results may be to chill private but honest diplomat discourse (possibly very, very bad)... or, to shine light on unethical behavior and incentivize better behavior (would be good, but I'm not convinced). I'm not convinced that the good outweighs the bad, and a lot of this would have been released in 3 to 4 decades for historians to pore over.

There is also an asymmetry issue: if party A has their emails/cables leaked, and party B does not, party A will almost always be damaged in relation to B. This is true if A is climate scientists and B is skeptics, or if A is the US and B is other nations. To a certain extent, I'd prefer either a private world or a fishbowl world to a world in which a few arbitrary groups are hacked and then pilloried for behavior that is actually the norm.

Anyway, those are some initial thoughts. I have to say, I didn't really like the Sarah Palin email hack either, though I also worry that the hacker is going to get punished more than they deserve...

silence said...

FYI, this essay on the reasons behind wikileaks trying to release everything is worth reading:

Bishop Hill said...

The idea that the CRU emailers had an expectation of privacy is nonsense. The emails were all in principle subject to FOI and EIR.

As for whether what was revealed was "banal", one can note, for example, that Prof McKitrick's allegation of fabrication against Phil Jones has not been refuted. If authors can invent findings in the IPCC reports, is that really "banal"?

Rocco said...

>Implying that CRU knew about the legislation before it existed

>Implying that all CRU emails are FOIable

>Implying that McKitrick has credibility


Bishop Hill said...


I'm not "implying" anything. It is quite clear that the emails were FoIable. The FOI legislation says the information has to be (a)held and (b)not covered by an exemption. Therefore most of the emails were indeed disclosable.

Roughly 2/3 post-date the introduction of the FOI Act anyway so your other point is moot too.

Rocco said...

Ah, we're making progress. "all emails" goes to "most" and scientists even get a little expectation of privacy.

And there are exemptions, you say? Do tell.

Bishop Hill said...

I'm sure you are capable of working Google yourself. I don't think Phil Jones is covered by the exemption for communications with the Royal Family. ;-)

EliRabett said...

FWIW, if you want an analogy, and Eli is sure you don't the CRU theft was breaking and entering, the Wikileaks was employee theft.

EliRabett said...

As Eli recalls, UToronto refused to release McKitrick's Emails because of the expectation of privacy. Without commenting on the vagaries of laws in various countries, the good Bishop appears to be asserting that ethics are situational.

cpwinter said...

With the proviso that I don't know anything about Bradley Manning's motives in releasing the communiques on DVD, I think the disclosures are equivalent — for the reasons you state. It follows that condoning one and not the other is indeed hypocrisy. The difference comes in how the two troves of material were used by their respective recipients.

It's clear by now that Denialists used the CRU e-mails dishonestly to trump up charges of a conspiracy where no conspiracy exists. (I note in passing that this sort of thing has not stopped.)

The WikiLeaks disclosures, in contrast, point to actual instances of problematical conduct, from insults all the way up to wanton murder. Having said all that, I think it is too early to judge the impact of the WikiLeaks disclosures. But if any of this evidence holds up on examination, I would call those specific disclosures worthwhile. Despite that, I don't think it's a good thing that a batch of diplomatic cables was released en masse. Negotiations generally do demand privacy, and secrecy on the part of nations is not always unjustified.