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World

Private Lives are Exposed as WikiLeaks Spills Its Secrets

The number of people affected is estimated in the hundreds

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange stands on the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy to address waiting supporters and media in London, Friday, Feb. 5, 2016, photo: AP/Frank Augstein
1 year ago

CAIRO – Its scoops have rattled the Saudi foreign ministry, the National Security Agency and the U.S. Democratic Party. But WikiLeaks’ spectacular mass-disclosures have also hit hundreds of average people — including sick children, rape victims and mental patients — who just happened to find their personal information included in the group’s giant data dumps.

In the past year alone, the radical transparency organization has published medical files belonging to scores of ordinary citizens; hundreds more have had sensitive family, financial or identity records posted to the web. In two particularly egregious cases, WikiLeaks named teenage rape victims. In a third, the site published the name of a Saudi citizen arrested for being gay, an extraordinary move given that homosexuality can lead to social ostracism, a prison sentence or even death in the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom.

“They published everything: my phone, address, name, details,” said another Saudi man who said he was bewildered that WikiLeaks had revealed the details of a paternity dispute with a former partner. “If the family of my wife saw this … Publishing personal stuff like that could destroy people.”

WikiLeaks’ mass publication of personal data is at odds with the site’s claim to have championed privacy even as it laid bare the workings of international statecraft. And it’s drawing criticism from longtime allies.

Attempts to reach WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for an interview over the past month have been unsuccessful and the ex-hacker did not reply to written questions. In a series of tweets following the publication of the AP’s story, WikiLeaks dismissed the privacy concerns as “recycled news” and said they were “not even worth a headline.”

Assange gave no indication that the offending material would be taken down. He has been holed up for the past four years in Ecuador’s embassy in London, where he sought refuge when Swedish prosecutors sought to question him over sexual assault allegations.

WikiLeaks’ stated mission is to bring censored or restricted material “involving war, spying and corruption” into the public eye, describing the trove amassed thus far as a “giant library of the world’s most persecuted documents.”

The library is growing quickly, with half a million files from the U.S. Democratic National Committee, Turkey’s ruling party and the Saudi Foreign Ministry added in the last year or so. But the library is also filling with rogue data, including computer viruses, spam, and a compendium of personal records.

The Saudi diplomatic cables alone hold at least 124 medical files, according to a sample analyzed. Some described patients with psychiatric conditions, seriously ill children or refugees.

“This has nothing to do with politics or corruption,” said Dr. Nayef al-Fayez, a consultant in the Jordanian capital of Amman who confirmed that a brain cancer patient of his was among those whose details were published to the web. Dr. Adnan Salhab, a retired practitioner in Jordan who also had a patient named in the files, expressed anger when shown the document.

“This is illegal what has happened,” he said in a telephone interview. “It is illegal!”

Twenty-three people were reached — most in Saudi Arabia — whose personal information was exposed. Some were unaware their data had been published; WikiLeaks is censored in the country. Others shrugged at the news. Several were horrified.

One, a partially disabled Saudi woman who’d secretly gone into debt to support a sick relative, said she was devastated. She’d kept her plight from members of her own family.

“This is a disaster,” she said in a phone call. “What if my brothers, neighbors, people I know or even don’t know have seen it? What is the use of publishing my story?”

Medical records are widely counted among a person’s most private information. But WikiLeaks also routinely publishes identity records, phone numbers and other information easily exploited by criminals.

The DNC files published last month carried more than two dozen social security and credit card numbers, according to an analysis assisted by New Hampshire-based compliance firm DataGravity. Two of the people named in the files said they were targeted by identity thieves following the leak, including a retired U.S. diplomat who said he also had to change his number after being bombarded by threatening messages.

The number of people affected easily reaches into the hundreds. Paul Dietrich, a transparency activist, said a partial scan of the Saudi cables alone turned up more than 500 passport, identity, academic or employment files.

Three dozen records were found pertaining to family issues in the cables — including messages about marriages, divorces, missing children, elopements and custody battles. Many are very personal, like marital certificates that reveal whether the bride was a virgin. Others deal with Saudis who are deep in debt, including one man who says his wife stole his money. One divorce document details a male partner’s infertility. Others identify the partners of women suffering from sexually transmitted diseases including HIV and Hepatitis C.

Lisa Lynch, who teaches media and communications at Drew University and has followed WikiLeaks for years, said Assange may not have had the staff or the resources to properly vet what he published. Or maybe he felt that the urgency of his mission trumped privacy concerns.

“For him the ends justify the means,” she said.

RAPHAEL SATTER
MAGGIE MICHAEL

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