Saturday, February 4, 2012

Hacker-Assisted Reporting: Can it be Ethical?

I have taken the controversial step of mentioning the words “hacking,” “reporting” and “ethical” all in the same sentence. Now I’ll need the rest of this post to convince you I haven’t lost all vestiges of integrity.

The Rupert Murdoch phone hacking scandal has exposed a serious malignancy in the state of British journalism. While everyone can see the moral bankruptcy of hacking into cell phones to harvest celebrity gossip, the scandal has raised ethical issues far beyond the odious practices of reporters at the now-defunct News of the World.

Is it justified to pay a private investigator for information the journalist might otherwise not be able to get? How far can deception go in the pursuit of journalistic truth? Is any form of hacking to be tolerated in the information-gathering process?

The answers aren’t as simple as you might think. Journalistic ethics have evolved over the years, and what may have been tolerated at one time might be seen as excessive at another. Here, for instance, is some helpful advice from a 1976 American book on investigative journalism by James Dygert:

“Information about a person’s phone calls, credit records, airline reservations, or utility bills can be obtained by a telephone call requesting the information in a manner implying the caller is the person in question or someone acting on his behalf.”

The British now call that practice blagging, and it has actually been illegal in Britain since 1994, though an exception is made when it can be shown to be in the public interest. The public interest defence has yet to be tested in court. But many British journalists, whether they work for the red-top tabloids or the more austere broadsheets, comfort themselves by hiring private investigators to do the dicey work for them.

Which brings us back to the topic of hacking, and whether it can ever be an ethical tool of journalism. It turns out that it can.

A good example is the work being done by Paul Radu and the coalition of journalistic groups running the Investigative Dashboard website. The site aims to help journalists around the world track corporate crime and corruption, and to share information that reporters uncover.

While the world’s multi-millionaires and billionaires have become adept at setting up offshore tax havens and convoluted business structures to defeat transparency, these journalists have been trying to discover tools to break through the complex web.

One of the most important services provided by the site is a gateway to worldwide company data. This is good as far as it goes, but not every country provides corporate registrations in a user-friendly format. For an investigative journalist, it’s important to be able to plug in a name of an individual to see which companies they are connected to, or to run a name of a company and immediately see the people involved with the firm.

Radu, along with what he calls his “civic hacker friends,” have solved the problem by scraping various sites and reconstituting the data in more usable form. The best example of this is the corporate registry of Panama, a favorite country for hiding money and attempting to cloud the real identity behind corporate directors and owners. Hackers scraped the site of all its data and reposted it in a way that allows investigative journalists to perform meaningful searches.

This is all perfectly legal, since Panama doesn’t charge for any of its data on the site. While the government of Panama may not like having its site hacked and scraped, it’s hard to see what harm, if any, this practice causes. Radu sees this as the beginning of many different ways to use hacking.

“There are organizations of hackers we need to work with,” he said at the recent Global Investigative Journalism Conference. “We have to go to local hack spaces to explain what our work is about. Right now hackers build beautiful tools no one uses.”

There is an ever-increasing supply of data available online, but very few Canadian newsrooms are using web scraping to harvest the information in a meaningful way. That’s not surprising, since most journalists don’t have the time or inclination to learn the programming language needed to perform scraping or legal hacking.

There’s a potential ethical minefield here as well, though. Contracting-out a web scraping or hacking project could bring just as many headaches to the journalist as hiring a private investigator with no strict ethical boundaries can. The collaboration can be a useful one, but it has to be well-monitored and thoroughly understood by the journalist at all times.

If it is, then hacker-assisted reporting can be a useful addition to the journalistic toolbox.