"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


As if we didn't have enough problems, it seems we will have to come up with some sort of ethical principle about what ought to be leaked and what not.

Information wants to be free, but bank account passwords very much want to be secret.

Is a person a hero for revealing information that was not intended as private? Are we all being delusional when we assume anything we say or do is private? What should we do when the walls all really, literally have ears, something we could afford to do already?

Dellingpole thinks wikileaks is a good idea. That certainly counts against it.

The senators who most vociferously repeat the "yes but climategate" line seem unwilling to cut Wikileaks any slack.

This is about more than just sharing entertainment media. What are the expectations for privacy, and what should be the penalty for violating those expectations. It seems to me that little enough was revealed by the CRU emails as to make their release unjustifiable, but those celebrating Wikileaks apparently believe that nothing should be private, ever, and that every invasion of privacy or legalistic intrusion attempting invasion of privacy is something to be celebrated.

Having seen how easily the CRU emails can be misconstrued, I have little confidence in the people combing through the leaked diplomatic emails on our collective behalf. If science journalism is too important to be left to journalists, who is to say that international relations journalism is any better?

I think that what I think is that bulk releases of stolen data are criminal, and that even in selective releases a greater crime must be revealed. Even there, there is some room for interpretation.

Apparently the US has been doing the anti-insurgency campaign on behalf of the Yemeni government, and nobody wanted the population to know it. Somehow I doubt this was an actual secret, but it was a handy fig leaf for all concerned.

People who do not support Al Qaeda (presumably this means everybody reading here) ought to be unhappy about this.

We also ought to be unhappy to live in a world where hypocrisy is part of the fabric of life. Still I doubt whether people uncovering such hypocrisy are inevitably doing a service.

The solution as individuals is to avoid such situations. But that is easier in theory than in practice.

What to say and what not to say is a challenge for practically everybody with any effectiveness. What is lying or covering-up, and what is protecting dear old granny from shocking ideas she couldn't and needn't cope with? What is courageous muckraking, and what is just mindless stirring up of dirt?


Rich Puchalsky said...

Your post doesn't distinguish between individuals and groups of any description. One doesn't need a very complex ethical sense to say that revealing the secrets of individuals, organizations, and governments may be three different kinds of things.

Wikileaks boasts that it has the CRU Emails, by the way. From its "About" page, which lists its holdings:
"Climatic Research Unit emails, data, models, 1996-2009 - Over 60MB of emails, documents, code and models from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, written between 1996 and 2009 that lead to a worldwide debate".

Aaron said...

If this stuff was that easy to pilfer, I expect that Russia, China and Israel had already looked at it, and shared it with their friends. The sin is to post it for the American public, and thereby disclose that American national security is not really very good.

The US is a republic. We should know what our government is doing in our name. If we do not know that they are doing we do not speak against it.

Qui tacet consentit.

Steve L said...

Leak v Stolen
Whistle blower v Thief
Hmm, but when I think of it, it's more difficult than I first thought. You're probably on the right track regarding the exposure of a greater crime. Although knowing what representatives are *actually* doing while supposedly representing you doesn't seem to be too objectionable.

adelady said...

"Representatives"? Knowing about donations and lobbying connections of elected officials is one thing - and that's why we have disclosure requirements. I have no problem with someone finding out that relevant financial interests have not been disclosed and doing the disclosing for us all to see.

There's another issue entirely with diplomatic representatives of a country though. They're there to represent our interests (as determined by the policies of elected governments). They do have to be skilled in the understatement, even duplicity, required to maintain and expand relationships with people many of us would cross the street to avoid. When those conversations are done, frank reports and fearless policy advice must go to government even, or especially, if the contents are unwelcome or threatening.

I am not convinced that this kind of material is suitable for indiscriminate publication.

As for the forewarning about bank shenanigans being exposed, I really don't care about them.

Anonymous said...

The Economist's "Democracy in America" has a good argument on this subject:


Anonymous said...

An analysis of a 2006 essay by Assange suggests that the real goal of the Wikileaks leaks isn't to rake up muck, but to cause the target 'system' to strangle itself from within.

I guess the bulky sizes of the releases may be part of a deliberate 'shock and awe' tactic -- leaking, say, only 4 or 5 damning cables to the Guardian won't exactly trigger a panic attack in the 'system'. Also, a massive data dump ensures that the leak will stay in the news cycle for a long, long time.

(This says nothing about the morality or immorality of the whole venture, which in the end is probably moot anyway -- we can say whatever we want, but in the end, it's Assange and his sources who decide what gets leaked and what doesn't.)

-- frank

Paul Daniel Ash said...

Objectively, and ethically, I can't see a difference between the CRU hack and WikiLeaks. Subjectively, I have to acknowledge that I reacted to the embassy cable dump the way many on WUWT reacted to the CRU email dump. This inconsistency made me return to some thoughts that had been percolating in my head ever since I read David Brin's writings about what he calls the "Transparent Society" some years ago.

We may be at the point where privacy laws are not only a fig leaf but a hindrance to actual privacy. Brin uses the metaphor of a restaurant to describe the weaknesses of strong encryption and other such defensive approaches to privacy. In a restaurant, people are inhibited from eavesdropping because you can see them leaning over to listen in. If you were surrounded by screens, anyone could come up and put his ear right up to them and you'd be none the wiser.

Crude analogy, perhaps, but hopefully the idea is clear. Governments and large corporations will always have more power to breach privacy than you and I have to protect it. A possible corrective would be the kind of transparency Brin advocates, as a sort of aikido move that robs surveillance of its power: we accept cameras on the street, so long as we can also have cameras in the police station and White House. Intimate privacy would still be protected, as would the privacy of e.g. domestic abuse victims as well as reasonable secrecy (with robust oversight) for certain law enforcement and national defense operations.

I'm not sure I buy the idea in whole cloth, but it seems clear that our current perception of privacy is fundamentally broken. The transparency model is helpful - to me, anyway - to gain some perspective on what privacy can and cannot be in the age of warrantless wiretapping and deep packet inspection.

King of the Road said...

Assange's thinking, cogent though it may be, is undermined by his "ends justify means" rationalization. He has appointed himself and his organization to be judge, jury, and executioner. Executioner is particularly apt if the ends really do justify the means - I wouldn't want to be him should the people whom he seeks to undermine adopt his ethos in total.

Anonymous said...

He has appointed himself and his organization to be judge, jury, and executioner.

Can you point out to me who he or his organization has judged, tried or executed? Name names, thanks, because I just can't seem to find it, or perhaps I just missed it.

Michael Tobis said...

kT, I am far from sure what I think about any of this, but Joe Klein suggests:

"I am tremendously concernced about the puerile eruptions of Julian Assange. Let's say you're an American diplomat in a provincial reconstruction team in Kandahar Province. Let's say you're a woman, reporting on the conditions of women in this largely Taliban-controlled area. Let's say you mention one or two of your contacts in a cable. They are now extremely vulnerable--indeed, they are likely to be rounded up, defigured or murdered for merely talking to the Americans. This is not improbable, it is likely--and even m0re likely in a country like China, with the resources to examine every last one of the 250,000 documents leaked. These are not the sort of stories that make it into the news, but they are where the real collateral damage occurs.

"If a single foreign national is rounded up and put in jail because of a leaked cable, this entire, anarchic exercise in "freedom" stands as a human disaster. Assange is a criminal. He's the one who should be in jail."

As usual, everybody needs to remember that not everybody is playing the same game by the same rules. Whatever you may think of America, there are worse people out there.

Dean said...

Why all the focus on Assange and no mention of the guy who had the access and actually stole the stuff? Because they already caught him?

Once out, it is out. If Assange was killed, do you honestly think there wouldn't be another Wikileaks?

I tend to be of the opinion that massive broad-brush leaks are more voyeurism than anything else, and I like the concept that a leak should expose a worse abuse. And of all those documents, how many are actually just frank honesty?

But blaming Wikileaks for any of this seems to just miss the point.

Dan Andrews said...

Michael...OT here, but may I ask what you think the quote by Jonathan Wells means? He is known for accusing evolutionary biologists of incompetence, fraud, misconduct, and deliberate deception, and in his book he tells his readers to get the U.S. government to stop funding evolutionary biology.

Take his quote and replace biology-related ones with climate science related ones, and you have a typical contrarian. Wells has no credibility to anyone with knowledge of evolution, but he sounds good to those who don't, and thus misleads them, much like Singer does, for example.

Dan Andrews said...

hmm, I followed the links so I know you're aware of Wells' reputation then.

Michael Tobis said...

It's true that I usually approve of the featured quotation. It's not teh case now.

It certainly is interesting how these patterns repeat themsleves across the sciences, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Joe Klein makes a good point, but misses to look into the future. This leak has dried up many future sources. Anyone will think at least twice, before speaking frankly to an American diplomat or sharing non-public information.

Anonymous said...

King of the Road, MT:

"Let's say ..."

This 'Cablegate kills people!' talking point is just as fact-free as the 'we must torture people because there may be a ticking time bomb!' thing. The fact is, so far Wikileaks itself has only released 598 of the 250,000+ cables, and the various news outlets are also doing their redactions while going through the stuff.

And about who gets to be the judge, jury, and executioner, if my only choice of judge + jury + executioner is between Julian Assange and Langley Headquarters (no, really), I think I prefer the former.

(Of course, a much better choice would be to have this thing known as "due process" -- you know, habeas corpus, presumption of innocence, access to a lawyer, and all that... Then again, I guess insisting on basic human rights, instead of accepting whatever 'compromise' that Obama has decided for the world, makes me a 'whiny liberal'.)

-- frank

Dan Andrews said...

Indeed. These patterns are found in many pseudoscience realms, and for me serve as red flags whenever I encounter a subject with which I am not familiar. Doesn't mean I discount it, but I do follow up their references more carefully than usual.

guthrie said...

Call me paranoid, but it might be best to have a small disclaimer under the Jonathan Wells quote. In fact it would do as a post into the whole issue of structural similarities across woo. Exactly the same accusations are thrown by homeopaths, witchdoctors and nutters who sell medicine which doesn't work.

cagw_skeptic99 said...

Fall out from a previous leak?

The brief statement, made by Jun Arima, an official in the government’s economics trade and industry department, in an open session, was the strongest yet made against the protocol by one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases.

He said: “Japan will not inscribe its target under the Kyoto protocol on any conditions or under any circumstances.”

Steve Bloom said...

OT: Michael, would you do Hank and I the favor of clarifying your views as discussed toward the end of this Stoat thread? In particular, is my characterization in comment 27 accurate? Thanks.

Alexander Ac said...


but BBC informs us about rapid and probably run-away permafrost melt:



Anonymous said...


"Fall out from a previous leak?"

(emphasis mine)

The question mark itself leaks information -- the information being 'cagw_skeptic99 throws out unsubstantiated innuendo and then tries to cover his ass with a punctuation mark'.


-- frank

Adam said...

Michael Tobis said...
It certainly is interesting how these patterns repeat themsleves across the sciences, isn't it?

Indeed. It is what originally tipped me off that climate "skeptics" were nothing of the sort.

It seems an age ago that I, not at the time knowing albedo from Al Gore, heard a denier calling global warming a religion, exactly as creationists do "Darwinism". I've since managed to acquire a meager understanding of climate science, but the tactics of climate deniers tell me all I really need to know about who is credible in this struggle.

cagw_skeptic99 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
cagw_skeptic99 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
cagw_skeptic99 said...

Maybe the innuendo is that you disagree that the climate gate emails contributed to the Japanese Government's policy change?

Maybe the policy change originated because Japan has figured out the obvious. Climate change doesn't matter enough to the governments of the world's largest economies to cause more than lip service to CO2 reduction. Drink more Kool Aid and send a donation to your favorite green PR firm.

Michael Tobis said...

very perceptive, cagws99

cagw_skeptic99 said...

A third of Scots households are unable to keep their homes warm, according to Scottish government figures.


This is OT here, but I have yet to see MT or any poster here address the serious harm being done to people on the lower end of the income chart who have to pay substantially more for their carbon based energy.

They pay more because of carbon tax/cap and trade schemes that have never had even the slimmest chance of making even a measurable difference in the CO2 content of the atmosphere.

Scotland is a wealthy country. The impacts are much worse in places like Africa where similar nonsense is impacting new power plants.

I saw a study claiming that something over a hundred times more people's lives are saved when it is a little warmer in the winter than are lost when extreme heat occurs in the summer. Even the denizens of this blog, whose minds seem to be completely blinkered by visions of CO2 heat waves, should be asking themselves what responsibility the 'suppress carbon' community has for the real, actual, human suffering your recommendations are causing.

Anonymous said...

cagw_skeptic99, do you ever step back for a moment from your keyboard and think, 'Hey, wait the minute. Do I look stupid to the rest of the world? Will it really improve my life if I keep spewing blathering, incoherent rants about how climate regulation hurts poor starving Africans who just want put gasoline in their cars?'

Oh, and there's the right-wing talking point that Julian Assange is a 'traitor' to the Free World because he's only trying to make the US look bad. They don't stop to think that, sometimes, when the US looks bad, it's because she is bad.

-- frank

cagw_skeptic99 said...

Actually few starving Africans have a car, and there are few roads for them to drive on if they did. What they want and may have difficulty getting because of the policies you advocate for is electricity.

Electricity for clean water, refrigeration, cooking, lighting, etc.

And actually, I prefer that people who advocate for your policies express them selves the way that you do about my blog posts. Please don't hold yourself back at all.

Anonymous said...


Oh great. So you finally realize that poor, starving Africans may not actually have cars to fill with gasoline.

But then you say that if climate regulation happens, then poor, starving Africans will have a problem using refrigerators!


You really, really don't realize how idiotic you are, do you?

-- frank

Anonymous said...

An interesting argument MT, while

I'm posting some of the leaked material - BUT I'm not going to hold myself out as an expert on international relations.

Of course there is a danger of using these materials out of context, and that "we" could be just as guilty of misconstruing the leaked cables as the sceptics did with "climategate".

Still, as historical documents they may be interesting and they could be comparable to materials sourced from the Tobacco litigation. These materials helped historians such as Oreskes et.al look at how the climate denial movement grew out of big tobacco's war on science.

Do they hurt climate negotiations? Should we ignore them? Do they have any significance?

Hard to say at this point...

cagw_skeptic99 said...

So Frank the swift hacker:

You so far avoid addressing the point of my post as have the rest of the commenters here. Do any of you accept any responsibility for the real, present day suffering that is occurring because European countries followed your policy prescriptions to reduce CO2 emissions and drove up the cost of energy? There will never be even a measurable difference in global temperatures due to all of Europe's CO2 reductions because they are so small anyway and the entire amount of those reductions will be dwarfed by the increase in China and India.

"MIDDLE class families are among millions of Britons who cannot afford to heat their homes this winter, as elderly ride on buses all day to stay in the warm."

"The last official figures, for 2008, showed there were 4.5 million fuel-poor households in the UK. On Friday, British Gas will raise prices for eight million customers. Millions more customers of Scottish & Southern Energy and ­ScottishPower have already been hit by price rises.

Last winter 70 per cent of household were forced to cut down or ration their energy use because of cost."

Read more at:

Michael Tobis said...

Please take discussion of cagw_s's argument to the open thread.