Hackers, journalists, and the ‘ethical swamp’

Investigative journalist Geoff White looks at the fragile ties between security and the media

ANALYSIS Anonymous information dumps made by hackers to journalists have become a source of controversy across the media industry, delegates at the Black Hat Europe security conference have heard.

The Paradise Papers – a data dump of 13.4 million files to the press about the opaque tax affairs of multinationals, celebrities, and high net worth individuals – marked a departure from journalistic convention, as media outlets opted to publish articles based on the leak without knowing the source’s identity.

The decision to publish without attribution was based on public interest grounds, Geoff White, a UK-based investigative journalist, said during a presentation at the Black Hat Europe conference in London yesterday (December 4).

But White, who has freelanced for the BBC, Forbes and the UK’s Channel 4 News, said he disagreed with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s entreaty to “pay attention to the content” of leaked data and not to “ask about the origin”.

In his talk on Hackers, Journalists, and the Ethical Swamp, White said: “A lot of investigative journalists feel the same [as Assange], and I said to them: ‘Aren’t you concerned about this, that you might end up getting your strings pulled?’”

“If someone is pulling your strings, then you want to know who’s doing it, surely?”

As a contrast to anonymous attribution, the Snowdon Revelations had a major impact on society partly because the reader at least knew the source’s identity and could make a judgement on their motive, White suggested.

Puppet masters

Far from simply dumping a mountain of data for journalists to disentangle, many hacking groups leak data strategically to engineer the narrative that maximizes damage to their target.

And journalistic instincts are often hostage to the fact that hackers have the data – and therefore set the agenda.

The 2014 breach of Sony Pictures, which was directed by a suspected North Korea-affiliated group, was another masterclass in media manipulation, said White.

Calling themselves the ‘Guardians of Peace’, the attackers maximized the chances of dissemination by leaking corporate email data to small, unknown publications who couldn’t resist the temptation of a globally significant exclusive.

With the data already in the public domain, major outlets including The Guardian and The New York Times could hardly ignore the story lighting up the internet.

The slow drip of leaks reached a crescendo that triggered the resignation of the studio’s co-chair, Amy Pascal, said White.

The remarkable thing about the Panama Papers story, on the other hand, was the fact that the world’s media adhered to an embargo for the explosive revelations, the journalist said.

Geoff White presented Hackers, Journalists, and the Ethical Swamp at Black Hat Europe – check out more  conference coverage from The Daily Swig.

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