Why is WikiLeaks publishing private individuals’ personal information?

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A supporter of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange holds a copy of The WikiLeaks Files outside the Ecuadorian embassy in central London, Britain February 5, 2016. Assange should be allowed to go free from the Ecuadorian embassy in London and be awarded compensation for what amounts to a three-and-a-half-year arbitrary detention, a U.N. panel ruled on Friday.     REUTERS/Peter Nicholls   - RTX25L5E

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JUDY WOODRUFF: For a decade, the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks has published online millions of original documents and other material — leaks that have exposed the inner workings of the National Security Agency, the U.S. military and State Department, the Saudi government and, most recently, the Democratic National Committee.

But a new report by the Associated Press says that many private individuals are caught up in the disclosures.

William Brangham has more.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The AP went through a sampling of the tens of thousands of documents WikiLeaks released in the last year, and found many personal details about private citizens, Social Security numbers, medical files, sensitive family and financial information.

In what the AP calls particularly egregious, WikiLeaks published the names of two teenage rape victims, as well as the name of a Saudi citizen who’d been arrested for being gay. That revelation could endanger the man’s life because, in Saudi Arabia, being gay is punishable by death.

Joining me now from Paris is Raphael Satter, one of the AP reporters who wrote this story.

Raphael, thanks for being here.

I wonder if you could tell us, what made you, first off, want to do this deep dive into WikiLeaks in the first place?

RAPHAEL SATTER, Associated Press: I covered the Saudi files released back in 2015, and there was an enormous amount of newsworthy information in there.

But as we were going through the files with my colleague Maggie, who co-wrote today’s story, we noticed that there was a lot of irrelevant information in there, too, including a few medical files. Now, at the time, we sort of shrugged it off. We thought, well, maybe there are a couple of stray files in there.

But we flagged it for further research. And, finally, this year, we have gone back and done some digging.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We mentioned that there was the mention of the Saudi man who had been arrested for homosexuality. What sorts of other things did you find in this — in these documents?

RAPHAEL SATTER: We found all kinds of things.

If it’s personal or sensitive or family-related, we found it. So, we found details of custody battles. We found parents writing to authorities about missing children. We found details of elopements, of divorces, of partners who had sexually transmitted diseases, partners who had AIDS, people who were in debt, in distress, in all kinds of financial difficulty, and, of course, some of the cases that you mentioned earlier, that is to say, people who were raped, including children who were raped.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Do you have any sense of why these documents were released? I mean, this seems to go at odds with WikiLeaks’ stance as a longtime advocate of privacy for individuals.

Why are these types of documents and this kind of information contained in there?

RAPHAEL SATTER: It’s difficult to know for sure.

I don’t speak for Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks, and I can’t say exactly what goes into these releases. Assange has indeed said that private information would be protected. In fact, he said explicitly that his site would take care with medical data.

For whatever reason, that doesn’t appear to have happened here. And even though I have been trying to get in touch with Assange for the past couple of weeks, he hasn’t spoken to us or offered us any kind of explanation for why this happened.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I know that, in the past WikiLeaks, has worked with journalists, who will then go through some of this information before it’s released and redact information to try to protect people’s data.

Do you have any sense why that didn’t happen in this case?

RAPHAEL SATTER: That kind of thing has not happened for some time, at least not at any great scale.

That indeed happened in 2010 with the release of Bradley Manning’s U.S. diplomatic documents. WikiLeaks worked very closely with journalists from The New York Times and The Guardian and other publications.

But WikiLeaks’ stance on this kind of thing has hardened. And they now argue that any redactions, any redactions at all kind of feed the propaganda that information can be dangerous, and they’re very much against that. Or they say that they’re very much against that.

So, lately, although I believe there have been some redactions left and right, overwhelmingly, the material comes out raw, that is to say, unfiltered.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We reached out to WikiLeaks for comment. And they got back to us and basically argued that none of this is new, this information has been out there for a while, and that you and the AP have some kind of animus against WikiLeaks, and that’s why you’re trying to make a big story out of this.

What’s your response to that?

RAPHAEL SATTER: Well, I have worked with WikiLeaks on several stories, including stories about surveillance in Syria.

And, in fact, my colleague Maggie and I covered the Saudi cables very aggressively last year. That’s one of the reasons we first came across these documents, and no one else did.

I think that WikiLeaks has produced an enormous amount of newsworthy material, but I reject the idea that we somehow did this because we had an agenda. In fact, I have been thinking about this story for the better part of a year.

And the truth is that the fact that I’m here right now speaking with you and speaking with others over the past few hours is a testament to the fact that this story is, in fact, quite new, and I think very disturbing.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Let’s say that I’m someone whose information is contained in these — in this dump of information. Is there any route for me to appeal to WikiLeaks to get my private information taken off their Web site?

RAPHAEL SATTER: That’s a great question.

And that’s a question that we got a lot from the people that we got in touch with. People talked to us in a panic, those who would talk us to, and they said, what can I do? What are my next steps? Who do I write to? Who do I call to get my information taken off this site?

We’re talking about deeply private data, like whether or not a bride was a virgin when she got married. And the truth is, I don’t know. I have asked WikiLeaks. I have asked — I have tried to get that message to Julian Assange. And we have no response. As far as I’m aware, there is none.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Raphael Satter from the Associated Press, thank you very much.

RAPHAEL SATTER: Thanks for having me.

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