We are in the age of massive, informative data breaches. From Italian surveillance company Hacking Team , to extra-marital affairs site Ashley Madison , and perhaps Mossack Fonseca , the company at the centre of the Panama Papers, journalists are increasingly being presented with opportunities to uncover significant stories using data that has been illegally pulled from databases or servers by hackers.
In parallel, commentators have claimed that some stories gleaned from dumps have little public interest. The BBC has asked me why I reported on the contents of emails from a data breach. As hacked caches become a much more common source for important stories, maybe it’s time for journalists, and readers, to assess what is really being asked when a media outlet dives into a freshly released dump.
Because of the increased number of data breaches recently, reporting on hacked data “is something that journalists need to get to grips with sooner rather than later,” Paul Bradshaw, course leader of MA Online Journalism at Birmingham City University, told Motherboard in a phone call.
When handling potentially stolen information, journalists need to confirm , as much as possible, the veracity of the data; understand that the source may not be impartial; and decide what aspects and parts of the data to publish or report on. This sounds a lot like dealing with whistleblowers, Bradshaw pointed out.
“The kind of ethical issues that journalists have to deal with in terms of whistleblowing and leaks generally are a pretty strong precedent for this,” he said.
The data analysed might include apparent company emails, internal documents, or even product source code , and reporting such data could result in criminal charges or litigation, especially if the journalist has not reported on the data responsibly. Whether the publication of certain details is responsible is not an exact science, but it’s pretty easy to see examples of articles based on hacked data that were not.
“In a sense, it’s no different to any other story that a journalist handles.”
A 2015 piece in Jezebel took information buried in hacked emails from Sony, and laid out Amy Pascal’s Amazon shopping list, which included some rather embarrassing personal items.;