Wikileaks criticised on sensitive data

Wikileaks founder Julian AssangeImage copyright
AFP

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Julian Assange founded Wikileaks and remains its spokesman and figurehead

Whistle-blowing site Wikileaks has been criticised for not doing enough to screen sensitive information found in documents released via the site.

An investigation by the Associated Press has found the names and addresses of teenage rape victims, people who have suffered sexual abuse, and information about individuals suffering mental illness in documents on Wikileaks.

Now some are questioning whether the site should be more careful with the information it publishes.

What is Wikileaks?

The website was set up in 2006 by Julian Assange to help whistle-blowers publish secret information, classified documents as well as stolen and leaked data. In early interviews, Mr Assange said it was intended to be a “giant library of the world’s most persecuted documents”.

It has now published more than 10 million documents including:

  • US military logs and field reports from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
  • US State Department diplomatic cables
  • Official messages sent between the Saudi government and its embassies
  • Millions of emails from intelligence firm Stratfor
  • Files and messages from the Democratic National Committee

What has AP found?

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AP

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AP found sensitive medical information in documents shared by Wikileaks

The news organisation combed through the site and found many instances where sensitive personal information was easily viewable in documents and files.

In the worst cases the information revealed could put lives at risk or lead to people being jailed or harassed, it said.

It is not the only risk involved with information on the site. Security researcher Vesselin Bontchev found more than 3,000 links to files that contained malware. The links were in a dump of emails from Turkey’s ruling political party, the AKP.

Wikileaks responded in a tweet calling the report “ridiculous” and said the information dated from 2015.

However, it has taken some action to make it harder to fall victim to malware in the AKP files – though the dangerous links have not been completely removed.

Is Wikileaks the only source for these files?

Not always. Sometimes the original whistle-blower publishes the files themselves in other places.

In some cases more information is released via that route than is available via Wikileaks. However, in most cases the majority of files are accessible via Wikileaks, and its decision to publish information can mean they get more publicity.

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PA

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Wikileaks published membership lists of the British National Party

Is harm being done?

Human rights groups have asked Wikileaks many times to do more to censor information found in documents. They fear reprisals against aid workers, activists and civilians named in the leaked data.

In addition, AP said it had evidence that fraudsters had used credit card numbers and other personal details revealed in some documents. Other leaks have lead to people losing their jobs, or have ended relationships.

The US government has condemned Wikileaks several times, saying its work has harmed diplomatic relations and put the lives of staff in sensitive positions at risk.

Direct evidence of harm has been hard to find, but in 2010 Julian Assange told the Guardian that Wikileaks’ 2007 exposure of widespread corruption in Kenya influenced violence during national elections that lead to 1,300 deaths. He justified the release of the information saying Kenyans had a right to know the information.

Has it done any good?

“Yes,” says Prof Christian Christensen, from the University of Stockholm who studies media and communication. “In the long run they have done a lot of good.”

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Getty Images

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Whistle-blower Edward Snowden worked directly with journalists rather than using Wikileaks

The early leaks it oversaw gave insights into corporate and official abuse on a scale never seen before, he said, adding that it also made it much easier for whistle-blowers and activists to get information into the public domain.

He said the organisation was now operating in a very different world than it did a decade ago when it was set up. To begin with, he said, there was much more competition for Wikileaks.

Publishing quickly and doing less to curate documents was one way for Wikileaks to remain relevant, he said.

However, he added, there had been a shift in the information it released. Now, the information was less about clear cases of harm or the abuse of power, and more to do with subjects that were much less black and white.

There was a danger, he said, that Wikileaks was now part of the story rather than just the route through which information is released.

“When that happens it really starts to muddy the waters,” he said.

Why doesn’t it censor documents?

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US Army/ AP

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US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning is serving a 35 year sentence for leaking information

In the early days of Wikileaks, it took more care – thanks to working with newspapers that did the job of removing sensitive information from documents about the Afghan and Iraq wars.

Spokesman Julian Assange has often said that the sheer amount of documents Wikileaks handles makes it all but impossible to censor or edit them if they are to be released in a timely fashion.

In some cases it has no way to contact whoever handed over documents, making it difficult to find out what information might prove damaging.

The lack of oversight has led to criticism about the release of almost 300,000 emails from Turkey’s AKP, with some saying they contained more trivia than treasure.

Wikileaks practices what it calls “radical transparency”, said Prof Christensen, which leads it to believe that exposing corruption, malfeasance and abuse of power trumps the damage it might do to individuals.

Many other whistle-blowing sites take greater care with documents they are passed to ensure that no more information than necessary is released.

Is it connected to Wikipedia?

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EPA

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Wikileaks published messages taken from the US Democratic National Committee

No. The “wiki” part of the name simply refers to its aim of letting people collaborate to edit documents and releases. The original idea was for Wikileaks to build up a large group of helpers that would censor and prepare information before publication. This changed in 2010 when the organisation became more centralised.

The change in structure led to a split that saw some of its original co-founders leave and others ended their association with it.

Ironically, for an organisation that preaches “radical transparency” it has never revealed how many people work for it, or who oversees the release of information.



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