If you have secrets, make sure to keep them from Julian Assange. After all, Assange makes it his business to publish private, secret, and classified information through WikiLeaks, his non-profit organization. Included in WikiLeaks’ database of information are millions of secrets from news leaks, anonymous sources, and whistleblowers across the world. For example, in October 2010, WikiLeaks posted online hundreds of thousands of classified documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as secret diplomatic cables between U.S. government officials and our allies abroad.
BENEFITS FOR DEMOCRACY
WikiLeaks maintains that its leaks help people by exposing unethical behavior in governments and corporations. Supporters of Assange argue that transparency is essential to democracy and that WikiLeaks promotes freedom of information. For example, certain WikiLeaks documents exposed that the state of the war in Afghanistan differs from how it has been portrayed in official reports, which sharpened the focus of the anti-war movement. Corruption and mishandling of affairs have also been revealed, which will promote greater vigilance for ethical and appropriate behavior.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, social activist and founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, believes that WikiLeaks is a good thing: “When we are sure that information is crucial for the welfare or security of others, we must speak up and make the truth known!”
VIOLATION OF PRIVACY
On the other hand, Rabbi Dovid Miller, who holds the Gottesfeld Heller Chair in Talmud at Yeshiva University, concludes that even if WikiLeaks’ and Assange’s motives are as altruistic as they claim, this disclosure is not a good idea. “Even if his motivations were pure in wanting to prevent some wrongdoing and even if there was no alternative manner to prevent the wrongdoing…the scope went far beyond its boundaries to reach an altruistic goal.”
Opponents to WikiLeaks argue that the company steals government property and violates rules of privacy. They further claim that Assange has caused irreparable damage to the confidentiality required for successful diplomatic correspondence, and that WikiLeaks undermines the United States’ influence around the world, endangering soldiers, allies, and those in government service. Other countries may not trust the United States to keep private correspondence away from the public eye. P.J. Crowley, while he was a State Department spokesman, told the news agency Reuters: “From our standpoint, there has been substantial damage.” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates claimed, however, “Governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets.”
THE JEWISH VIEW
Talmudic sages teach that one should never disclose the details of even a casual conversation without explicit permission (Yoma 4b), unless significant harm to others would occur if the conversation is not revealed. Rabbeinu Gershom, an 11th-century Ashkenazic sage, strengthened rabbinic laws of privacy by prohibiting the reading of other people’s mail. Assange likely violated this statute since the diplomatic documents published by WikiLeaks were not intended for the public to read.
In addition, among Judaism’s basic values is the ethical obligation to avoid lashon hara (slander), which is derived from the biblical verse, “Do not go about as a talebearer among your people” (Vayikra 19:16). Lashon hara involves spreading negative and potentially harmful information about someone else, even if the information is true.
On the other hand, we have an obligation to pursue justice (Devarim 16:20), which permits one to reveal even private information in some cases. If we regard Assange breaching confidentiality as a whistle-blowing measure defending against global injustice, then WikiLeaks would, in fact, be fulfilling the directive to pursue justice. In addition, the prohibition of spreading lashon hara may not apply since the information supplied might fall under the exception to the rule, which allows lashon hara in circumstances that such speech will protect someone from entering a damaging deal. And, if a life is saved by revealing the hidden information, then WikiLeaks could even be credited with fulfilling the obligation to not stand idly by while one’s neighbor’s blood is shed (Vayikra 19:16).
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Does WikiLeaks benefit society or violate individuals’ rights? Will the privacy breaches of WikiLeaks ultimately be damaging or protective of democratic global interests?