The Rise of Leaking Websites | MIT Center for Civic Media

The Rise of Leaking Websites

We often use the terms 'leaking' and 'whistleblowing' synonymously but their functions are quite different in practice. Whistleblowing is reporting a wrongdoing of some sort with the hope that it will be rectified. Leaking refers to the release of documents, nowadays often in large quantities, in the name of transparency (with whistleblowing potentiallly in mind for the future).

Recently we have seen a rise of leaking websites. These websites take leaked documents from their sources, process them, and release the documents to the media and/or the public. With leaking websites, the people processing and releasing the documents are those involved in the classic whistleblowing process of identifying wrongdoings and reporting them to the public, media, and/or some authority. While leaking and whistleblowing are distinct, leaking can lead to whistleblowing. In many cases, leaking websites are a way for the source of the documents to outsource the whistleblowing process. Does this mean the source of the documents is not a whistleblower? The source is not a whistleblower in the classical sense but, depending on his or her intentions, ethically and legally I would hope that the source and others involved in the leaking and whistleblowing process could be considered whistleblowers.

This new process of whistleblowing has terrified governments and some organizations because it is significantly riskier than the standard whistleblowing method and also new and unknown. Leaking organizations are quite different from the mainstream media some whistleblowers go to in the standard process. This process also separates the source of the documents from the actual whistleblowing process and instead turns that sensitive procedure over to third parties. Not to mention that the exact consequences of mass-leaks are still heavily disputed and the legality of it all is not clear. But are leaking organizations bad? What enables them? How effective are they and what are the problems with this new process? Could an improved leaking organization be a better solution than standard whistleblowing (which has its own issues)?

At its most basic level, mass leaking is enabled by the spread of computers, the Internet, and security tools. Computers can easily store and be used to access thousands of documents. These can be anonymously sent to others online and/or posted publicly. The mass release of sets of documents like the various war logs and other files would never be possible without these high-tech tools. Indeed, some of the people who provided these documents might not have come forward at all without computers, the Internet, or anonymity. It would have been too dangerous and time-consuming. Thus, in a way, these tools not only enable but encourage leaks.

While whistleblowing organizations have found great ways to use tools to obtain and release documents, processing documents is harder. Modern leaks often deal with large quantities of documents that contain evidence of many wrongdoings. Ideally, all the documents would be read through before release, verified, summarized, and analyzed for evidence of misconduct. One person or even a small group of people would take a very long time to process these documents. Luckily, crowd sourcing has been successfully used to deal with large tasks. With the rise of the Internet, crowd sorucing is possible in theory because more people have access to information only previously available to experts. Unfortunately, leaks are usually sensitive information and, to my knowledge, no leaking organization has found a great way of crowd sourcing leak processing.

Some organizations have tried to crowd source leak processing. There have been a few approaches to this. Releasing all of the documents on arrival is one approach. Unfortunately, there could be names or other personal information in these documents that could endanger innocent people if they were released. At the very least, I think these should be removed before release to the public (some disagree). It is also worth noting here that some secrets have their place. Some secrets would cause serious harm if they were revealed and contain no evidence of wrongdoing. Thus, trustworthy people or some secure, accurate, and automatic program must go through these documents and remove personal and particularly sensitive information. Once this has been achieved and the documents have been released, the basic transparency goal of leaking has been accomplished.

A pile of documents still is not very useful. Transparency is limited when people have no idea what documents contain and there are more than they can reasonably read. This mass release also does not mean wrongdoings have been identified or reported. In an effective leaking system, these documents need to be read, summarized, and analyzed. Wrongdoings need to be identified from this summary and analysis, investigated, and reported to the media and the public. This is a gigantic task. At the very least, there needs to be a tracking system for document processing and release. It also requires crowd sourcing of some sort or a very large organization to do it quickly.

After processing and initial release of the documents, people need to read the documents and/or summaries and take notice of any wrongdoings. Furthermore, in the case of a significant wrongdoing, someone needs to campaign for the situation to be fixed. While leaking organizations are great at making documents public, they are bad at actually spreading the information to the broader public and working with governments and organizations to rectify wrongdoings. Much of the hype around leaking organizations has been about the organizations themselves rather than the documents they release. Additionally, there can be so many problems identified that it is almost impossible to fix them all. In some ways, quality of improvements has been sacrificed for quantity in the transition from whistleblowing to leaking.

For my Intro to Civic Media project, I will be looking at how leaking organizations use technology (specifically security tools, participatory media, and crowd sourcing but also other tools) in the process of obtaining, processing, and releasing documents and working with organizations to rectify situations arising from misconduct. My goal is to identify what works well in this process and what areas need improvement as well as potential changes to the process. To do this, I would like to conduct interviews with people involved in various leaking organizations. I will also create a website where anyone can post information on tools used by leaking organizations and case studies of specific organizations or sets of releases. I will be posting my findings in their raw form on this website and then synthesizing them into a paper. I believe that leaking can be incredibly beneficial if done right but extremely dangerous if done wrong. Recently, there have been some good attempts at leaking from leaking organizations but I think there are many ways they can be both safer and more effective.