With modern technological advances happening all the time, it is not surprising that the First Amendment is being considered a factor in journalistic approaches to covering leaks. Ashley Madison, an online dating website that specifically targets married adults who want to have affairs, was hacked in July 2015. This hack leaked tens of millions of user’s private information to the public. What happened next became a journalists Christmas. Government and public figures names were found on the list and immediately reported on by journalists. The most famous being Josh Duggar, the devoted family man, who regularly used the website to cheat. Along with government officials using the website on work computers. Throughout the entire scandal, the question remained was this ethical to publish personal details, illegally obtained, of people without their consent?
Breaking this down a step further, hacking the information is illegal and is done through misrepresentation to gain access into the system. The journalists who reported on this obtained the information through searching the hacked data and looking for specific people. Anne Helen Peterson, a writer from BuzzFeed explains this leak and its connection to the First Amendment the best. “The legal position was straightforward: These documents were obtained through illegal means, but accessing them is not, in fact, illegal; reporting on documents made available through the hack, and even excerpting from them, are covered under both the First Amendment and Fair Use which protects the reproduction of copyrighted content under the aegis of ‘enriching’ or educating the public.”
Now most people are saying, what about privacy? Shouldn’t people have a right to discretion and something as intimate (and embarrassing) as cheating on your significant other should be kept personal? The reality is that no one gets privacy anymore. Take Josh Duggar for example, in the spotlight for being in the reality show 19 Kids and Counting on TLC; became a public figure during his time on TV. Meaning that the public has a right to know about him.
In addition, information from the hacks educated the public about how slimy some public officials and public figures were. Something as scandalous as infidelity is eaten up by our society. The hacked information was already out in the public and regardless someone was going to figure it out, eventually. What people don’t want to get out, journalists don’t hesitate to use to contribute to what they are writing about. That is a journalists right under the First Amendment. As long as they do their due diligence with fact checking, they are able to write about your personal information.
Instead of going after the certain individuals released in the hack, journalists should be going after the perpetrators; but why would they do that thought when no one really cares about who leaked it? Gossip and drama is more profitable, especially for the press. While outing people against their will is morally wrong, it is not seen as defamation in the eyes of the law or our culture. People eat up drama, especially drama that people don’t want to get out. Until something changes, if you don’t want something coming out about you cheating, just don’t use a “discreet” dating website. At this point, privacy is not always guaranteed.
I appreciate and enjoyed your clear explanation on the connection between the First Amendment and journalists reporting on personal information obtained by hackers. Many don’t understand that while the gathering of that information itself was illegal, reporting it is not. We want this to be the case because there are countless cases were whistleblowers illegally stole and shared confidential information that would ultimately lead to the discovery of a larger issue. However, I disagree with your concluding paragraph in which you state that if someone doesn’t want their intimate details shared, then they shouldn’t join sites such as the one mentioned. I think this is a dangerous and slippery slope to the presumption that everything we do online will be public domain. This is not an issue we can complacent on. Yes, information stored digitally is at a higher risk of being leaked, but we shouldn’t be quick to accept this. Perhaps this argument would function fifteen to twenty years ago when the Internet was for many still a luxury and an addition, rather than a necessity, to everyday life. But nowadays, nearly everything is done virtually. Datings apps have surged because people no longer meet in the same way as before technology. This is okay and a natural shift that with it comes the proliferation of dating sites and apps.
I think you did a good job of explaining these issues, and pointing out that while obtaining the information was illegal, reporting on it was not. Unfortunately for some, we don’t have privacy when it comes to the internet. I think an important distinction that you made was between reporting on public officials data vs. any random person. This info about public figures/govt. officials was clearly seen as newsworthy to many people.
You did a great job with this post! It’s important that journalists/reporters understand how to identify and share factual data. We don’t want “fake news” being spread around.