THIS WEEK, the group Wikileaks posted on its website the entire archive of data and information stolen from Sony Pictures last fall — and it seems every day there’s a new, earth-shattering scoop.
We’ve learned that one rich person tried to help another rich person’s kid get an internship at Buzzfeed. Shocking!
A former Hillary Clinton aide sometimes talked with movie studio presidents about how great they think Hillary Clinton is. Scandalous!
And a famous movie star was embarrassed about — and tried to cover up — the fact that his long-dead ancestors owned slaves.
What a victory for transparency that these critically important stories are now in the public domain!
That’s what Wikileaks and its click-obsessed enablers in the media would like you to believe. But in reality, data dumps like these represent a threat to our already shrinking zone of privacy.
Wikileaks justifies its actions by arguing, on its website, that “the Sony Archives offer a rare insight into the inner workings of a large, secretive multinational corporation.” Sony has “ties to the White House,” the group claims, and “connections to the US military-industrial complex.” The company even lobbies on issues like “Internet policy, piracy, trade agreements, and copyright.”
This flimsy rationale, which could apply to any company in America whose businesses intersect with public policy, could potentially put millions of Americans at risk.
If Wikileaks were merely revealing hidden truths about a company’s vast influence on politics, perhaps the group would be on solid ground. Some media outlets, including the Globe, have noted ways the leaked e-mails shed light on our relationship with history and race. The problem is that surrounding these needles of information is a giant haystack of Sony employees, whose private information is now being splashed all over the Internet.
Then bottom-feeding websites like Jezebel and Gawker troll through Sony’s data for clickbait and call it journalism.
Take, for example, a story this week in Jezebel, Gawker’s women-themed sister site. It catalogued disgraced former Sony executive Amy Pascal’s purchases on Amazon, which included various intimate feminine and diet products. Not only is the public-interest value of such information hard to decipher, but the story seemed perversely calculated to humiliate Pascal, in a distinctly gendered way.
Since Pascal no longer works at Sony — she was ousted last fall, after the first round of leaks revealed that she had made racially insensitive jokes — it’s hard to imagine any rationale for exposing her choice of hygiene products.
But for the author of this bit of cruelty, Natasha Vargas-Cooper, Pascal had it coming . . . for being rich. When someone brought up the article’s meanness in the comment section, Vargas-Cooper responded: “HAHAHAHAH. Yes! Those poor millionaire producers!! Let’s laugh at them while they count their Smurfs money.”
Putting aside the fact that the right to privacy isn’t determined by the amount of money in your back account, what about the not rich, not famous, nonexecutives at Sony?
I needed only 20 minutes on the Wikileaks site to find a credit card number, medical information, private e-mail addresses, salary data, and plenty else that most people wouldn’t want available on a searchable database.
This kind of cyberattack is a greater threat to people’s privacy than anything revealed in the Snowden/NSA leaks, which became a cause celebre for some of the same people chortling over the Sony leaks.
Wikileaks has been a huge supporter of Snowden and various other leakers, on the grounds that we need to hold governments accountable. Yet Wikileaks’ actions this week are in the direct service of those who originally hacked Sony — the totalitarian rulers of North Korea. They’d done so last fall to prevent the movie studio from releasing a film that shined negative light on the country’s ruler. Rather than being held to account, Pyongyang is being rewarded.
And continued media coverage that reports the private information in those hacks not only abets the cyber extortion, but cheers the extortionists on. With ready and willing amplifiers, what’s to deter the next cyberthief from stealing a company’s database of information and threatening to send it to Wikileaks if a list of demands aren’t met?
Today, it is harder and harder to stay outside the omnipresent eye of social media, surveillance cameras, and smartphone videos. Wikileaks is only adding to the onslaught on our privacy rights — surreally, in the name of transparency.
Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.