The cyber hack of the Democratic National Committee, and the subsequent release of 19,000 e-mails by Wikileaks, is the leading political news story today, with the news media reporting on ignominious details from many of the e-mails, and the DNC Chairwoman resigning her position at least in part as the result of these e-mails. Moreover, numerous reports indicate that many experts and government officials believe that one or more Russian intelligence agencies are behind the hack, using Wikileaks as a cut-out to disseminate the e-mails.
This cyber hack and data dump is the latest in a series of similar such attacks against organizations and individuals over the past few years, including the Sony hack in 2014 (reportedly carried out by North Korea), the hack of CIA Director John Brennan’s personal e-mail account in 2015, and hacks and massive data dumps of informaion from private sector companies such as Stratfor, HBGary, and Hacking Team. In each of these cases, and especially with Sony, the news media reported not just on the fact of the hack but also on the contents of the stolen and leaked information. This reporting has magnified the impact of all of these hacks, helping the hackers and leakers to achieve the intended consequences of their efforts, and thus implicitly encouraging future hacks and data dumps.
This trend raises serious questions as to how the news media should act with respect to hacked information:
1. Should the news media be reporting at all on the content of stolen, hacked information? Would news media outlets report on materials that had been physically stolen from companies’ offices? If not, then why is cyber different?
2. If the answer to the question above is ‘yes’, are there limits on what should be reported on? Is “newsworthiness” enough? Should there be some standard of wrong-doing (criminal activity, corruption, etc.) as the basis for reporting, similar to standards for whistle-blowing within the US Government?
3. Should the news media exercise different degrees of restraint depending upon the target of the hack, i.e. whether it is a government agency, corporation, non-profit organization or individual?
4. How should information about the likely perpetrator of the hack influence decisions by the news media about what to publish? For example, with respect to the DNC hack, it appears probable that a foreign intelligence service is conducting an operation that is intended to undermine and influence the democratic process in the U.S. Does the U.S. news media really want to be in the role of facilitating such an operation?
5. How should the additional factor of a criminal investigation or indictment influence decisions by the news media to report on the leaked content from hacks?
These issues are as deserving of discussion within the news media as the content of the leaks themselves. While there is no feasible way to completely restrain dissemination of hacked information from such leaks, given the proliferation of blogs and independent news media outlets over the last decade, I would hope that mainstream news media outlets would develop a self-enforced code of conduct and set of policies for reporting on such hacked information, guided by the core principle that information from a cyber hack is the ill-gotten gain of a criminal act and should be treated with the same restraint as information purloined from the burglary of an office suite.
If we continue to see broad-based reporting by the media on hacked information, however, then there is a strong risk that this cycle of hack and leak will only grow worse, in a way that not only harms the hacked organizations but undermines American interests and values.