Ethics of Intelligence for the Media: Introduction

This post is part of a series about the ethics of intelligence for the media.


Public attention often focuses on the ethics of intelligence collection and operations by the United States government, including its possible harms to private individuals and democratic societies: from technical collection or so-called "mass surveillance" to enhanced-interrogation techniques or torture to targeted killings or assassinations.

The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), it has been said, has a cultural predisposition to default to discussions about the legality, instead of the ethics, of such practices.

Yet, considering the recent collection and publication of both raw or classified intelligence resulting from breaches or leaks, by government insiders, foreign intelligence services, private entities, or non-state actors, perhaps the same may be said about the U.S. media.

The Society of Professional Journalists notes, for example that "[a] big problem for journalists...is that their discussions all too often begin by citing law rather than explaining the moral obligations that journalists are attempting to fulfill. Defenders talk about the right to publish, rather than the reason they publish. There is a tendency by journalists to wrongly assume the public understands the rationale behind First Amendment protections."

Unsettled or Untested

Whether collection, or otherwise acquiring, or publication of such materials by the media is protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution or prohibited under criminal or civil statutes, some related activities associated with this question are matters of unsettled or untested law.

An majority of news editors agree that "[i]n the digital age, there are many unsettled legal questions about the scope of free expression," according to a recent survey by the Knight Foundation. A majority disagree that the "First Amendment is largely settled," and they do believe that "First Amendment law has not kept up with technological developments."

Who is a Journalist?

Who is a journalist is also a matter of public debate, and perhaps immaterial to legal considerations. Not all publishers, who are protected under the First Amendment, are journalists. Take, for example, pornographers. However, as one recent commentator notes: people don't rely upon pornography for information. Yet, with the low-cost accessibility of web-based content management systems and social media platforms today, almost anyone can be a publisher, or call themselves a journalist.

Journalism's Societal Role

Journalism, however, unlike pornography, is a profession with a societal role.

Existing Ethics & Needs

Most guidelines for media professionals outline the ethical treatment of sources and source relationships.

Some outline the treatment of special sources, for example, those who are victims of sexual violence or juveniles. Some explicitly prohibit as organizational policy the breaking and entering of physical properties, the breaching of information systems, or electronically eavesdropping to collect information. Others outline standards for the publication of rumors.

While existing guidelines offer best practices for working with whistleblowers and commentary about publishing classified information, anonymous leaks, or information stolen by theft, based on a review of available literature, as far as I can see, none explicitly clarifies the ethics of acquiring, analyzing, and publishing such intelligence by media practitioners.

Ethics for the applied intelligence disciplines as practiced by the media are, therefore, ripe for discussion, and that is the purpose of my work.

Press v. Intelligence Community

Media professionals today are acquiring, processing, analyzing, and publishing intelligence, including geospatial intelligence (IMINT/GEOINT), communication and signals intelligence (SIGINT/COMINT), as well as measurement and signals intelligence (MASINT), to report on the news. When journalists are denied access to battlefields in airpower dominated conflicts, they collect and analyze OSINT, including from social media and commercially available IMINT/GEOINT, as I wrote for Airwars last year. Doing so enables them to remotely investigate and report on international military actions.

Researchers, analysts, and journalists at the website, Bellingcat, evidenced Russian attribution for the 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 using OSINT and IMINT/GEOINT. They also reportedly revealed the identities and activities of Russian military intelligence officers, allegedly involved in the attempted assassination of Sergey and Yulia Skripal in the United Kingdom, scooping not only other media outlets, but reportedly Western intelligence services.

Some commentators believe that Bellingcats work "blurs [the] line between open source investigation and investigative journalism," because it incorporates traditional journalistic methods to obtain information.

Others have suggested that some of Bellingcat's practices may be unethical, for example, paying for information, or potentially illegal. The Spectator reported, for example, that early in the Bellingcat-Skirpal investigation researchers collected the "the passport data of millions of Russian citizens from a torrent site and confidential state-owned data from Russian commercial black markets." While Bellingcat and its media partner performed due diligence on the data using traditional investigative techniques, the website decided to keep the identity of those illicit services confidential at the time of publication.

What Can I Offer Here?

My work examines the ethics of journalism within this developing environment:

  • I will discuss the similarities and differences between journalism and applied intelligence as professions. While journalism and applied intelligence both deal with information, they possess distinct societal roles, which inform their ethics.

  • I will also examine how espionage and journalism have evolved. In an information age with mass or industrial espionage, the media has become both a collector, analyst, and disseminator of intelligence at scale. However, the media has also played both a witting and unwitting role in espionage operations conducted by state and non-state actors. I will also explore journalism ethics within this environment, as well as its limitations and challenges.

  • Preliminarily and in part, I propose that the ethics of journalism in armed conflict is an appropriate model for operating in an environment replete with cyber and information operations.

  • I will also examine more closely the ethics theories of both media and intelligence practitioners, their similarities and differences.

  • I will also explore the social pact that both journalism and the government have and how it informs the ethics of public interest information and intelligence.

  • In the course of my work I will use statements and claims made by organizations to impeach assumptions that collecting, analyzing, or publishing any and all information is ethically or morally relative.


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