The Multi-Edged Technology Knife

A high school student describing himself as critical of U.S. foreign policy told a newspaper that he and a classmate were behind the hacking and publication of personal information about former Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and current CIA Director John Brennan. Mr. Brennan has been a staunch supporter of the Obama administration’s controversial drone program and has refused to categorize Bush-era interrogation tactics as torture.

The hacker claims to have posed as a Verizon employee and tricked the company into providing Mr. Brennan’s identification and other data. He then apparently sent e-mails from Mr. Brennan’s private account to WikiLeaks, which published a selection of them last week.

The information released pre-dates Mr. Brennan’s appointment as CIA director by several years, and there was nothing of any import in the e-mails or personal information revealed. Nothing of import to the nation, that is. To Mr. Brennan and his family, though, the hacking was surely a source of chagrin and concern. Among the documents published by WikiLeaks was Mr. Brennan’s 47-page, 2008 application for security clearance, which includes personal phone numbers, passport numbers and social security numbers for him and his wife as well as phone numbers for a number of senior national security and intelligence officials.

Over recent years, there has been a flood of media admiration — undeserved to say the least — for WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, as well as for former CIA employee Edward Snowden, who leaked classified National Security Agency documents. But the right to free speech, while enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment, is not absolute, and is not always a right wisely or ethically acted upon.

Publishing personal data for no purpose other than to revel in the admiration for obtaining it (and to annoy the subjects of the data) is indefensible and malicious. But much of what has been stolen and made available to media and the public over recent years goes well beyond that. It is nothing short of dangerous.

There are, of course, proper limits to government power and government secrecy. No one wishes to live in a dictatorship or without the freedoms we rightly cherish. But Chazal tell us (Avos 3:2) that governments — and they were speaking about considerably less liberal governments than our own — serve a vital purpose, and that, without them being able to function, what ensues is anarchy — people “swallowing one another alive.”  Secure information is an essential tool for responsible governance. And breaching its security can endanger lives.

Mr. Assange himself, back in 2010, acknowledged the same, admitting that his practice of posting largely unfiltered classified information online could one day lead his organization to have “blood on our hands.” Many contend, in light of the troves of national security-related documents WikiLeaks has made public over the years, that that has already happened.

And it’s not only government officials who have had private information compromised by pranksters and provocateurs gleefully operating under the cloak of “investigative journalism.” Individuals and corporations suffer serious damage, too, when they get hacked.

Mr. Brennan’s recent experience should serve to remind us that, for all its touted and demonstrated positive and useful applications, modern communications technology leaves us all vulnerable. The CIA director has been accused of not taking the proper precautions to protect the information that was compromised. But electronic information is never entirely secure, no matter who one is or what precautions are taken. New means of ensuring privacy will only spur those who see a mission in invading it to find new ways of sating their aspirations.

And those of us who know that the communication technologies that have proliferated so widely over recent years pose a host of spiritual threats no less than privacy ones should pause to recognize that the sort of caution that hackings and breaches require of us is only part of the picture. That even greater caution is in order for anyone who cares about more transcendent things than telephone and social security numbers, even than national security.

We need to approach the electronic labyrinth of interconnectivity — and all the technological advances yet, and sure, to come — not with bright eyes and open arms but rather with raised eyebrows, and an abundance of caution.