I don’t understand information crimes

August 17, 2012 By: erik Category: Anarchy, Musings, Politics, USA 227 views

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whistleLet’s say I have a secret. Perhaps I’m gay, or I secretly won the lottery, or I killed a guy once, or I have a terminal disease, or I’m in witness protection, or I’m embezzling money from my employer, or I’m having an affair, or I have a supernumerary nipple. Whatever it is, it’s absolutely true, but no one knows it, and I’d prefer that it stays that way. Now let’s say you somehow discover my secret and you tell everyone. What moral, ethical or legal lines have you just crossed?

None, I would argue.

I would be angry and annoyed, but what recourse would I have? From what I can tell, most common law defines the crime of defamation or slander or libel as the spreading of false information about a person or corporate entity.

In the very worst case, let’s say that information that came out of your mouth was directly causally linked to someone murdering me. Are you morally or legally responsible for my death? No, of course not. The murderer is.


Now let’s say I’m a corporation and I have a secret. Perhaps I’ve been Enron-ing my books, or I’m developing a brand new drug or tablet computer that I want to keep secret from my competitors. Now let’s say you, my employee, release my secret to the press. I would fire you, of course, but you would be lauded as a hero by society.


On the other hand, if I am a government, and you leak one of my secrets, be it about bureaucratic overspending, troop movements, or the location of my spies, our society deems it reasonable that you be jailed for life or even executed for your “crime” of speaking truth.

I’m sorry, but no government has the moral right to keep their troop movements secret so they can more effectively kill their enemies. Nor do they have a moral right to keep their spies’ identities secret (so they can more effectively kill their enemies).


It may sound like I’m arguing that we, individuals, corporations and governments, have no right to privacy. Perhaps I am. We certainly don’t when it comes to immoral behavior (e.g. my right to privacy in my own home stops when I start beating my wife). All my favorite privacy laws are the ones that protected me from the government, like the fourth amendment or fruit of the poisonous tree.

As the title suggests, I haven’t really thought all this through, and I’m thankfully not a lawyer. I’m just thinking out loud online. What do I have totally wrong here?

  • This is an interesting post, and I tend to agree with your conclusions. I feel like there are several posts all compressed together here, and that you’re glossing over a lot of questions that are harder to answer than you indicate.

    For example, you write: “Are you morally or legally responsible for my death? No, of course not. The murderer is.” It would not seem to me that we can say “no” as a matter of course. Multiple actors can share responsibility for an outcome. And speech can be criminal (e.g., “fire!” in a crowded theater, fraud, or Nazi literature in Germany) or immoral. Some analysis is required to get to “no,” and I don’t think that analysis is necessarily easy.

    Or “no government has the moral right to keep their troop movements secret so they can more effectively kill their enemies.” If the enemy is a fanatical moral monster who will kill millions of innocent people if not stopped, a government may have a moral imperative to take what steps it can to more effectively kill the enemy.

    • Each of those instances of criminal speech you enumerated are spouting false information. Are there cases where telling the truth illegal? (not counting breaking NDAs or other instances where you’ve contractually promised to keep a secret)

      The problem with the self defense argument in favor of violence is that both sides can use it rationally.

      • There are laws that prevent disclosure of certain kinds of information to certain people (like anti-trust laws). And while I think it’s settled as a legal issue, the state is inextricably bound up with contracts like NDAs between two citizens. If someone violates an NDA, it is an arm of the state that you go to for enforcement. So the moral question is not compartmentalized from the realm of government just because it arises from private agreements.

        On self defense, the fact that there is a problem with self defense argument doesn’t make the issue irrelevant or less thorny!

  • bawa

    So true!

    PS is why the UK govt found it so hard to extradite Pinochet and finds it has such an obligation to do so with Assange, on a kind of rape charge that would be laughable in a UK court..

  • José

    Maybe your post was has to do with Assange and Wikileaks.
    What if you are an official of an embassy in a country with a corrupt government and want to tell the situation to the president of your home country? Maybe the ruler of the host country has some kind of odd temperament and you want to tell it to your home country. You would naturally want youur information to be secret. I think that is the reason diplomatic comunications should be secret, to ensure them to be as honest as possible.
    I have read some ‘leaks’ from Wikileaks and are all that type of information. They are all honest descriptions of foreign governments made by US officials from some embassy with information that can’t be said publicly.
    I don’t know what should be done with Assange, but I see the danger of make absolutely all information public.