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Who Is A Hacker And Who Is A Whistle Blower?

The way we speak about people who leak information, be they hackers or whistleblowers, is divided by a perceived social agenda—hackers are trolls and whistleblowers are martyrs.
October 24, 2014, 12:40am

Image by Ben Thomson

Next month Freya Newman, the university student who leaked news of Francis Abbott’s 60 thousand dollar scholarship from the Whitehouse Institute of Design, will be sentenced for accessing and sharing the Prime Minister’s daughter’s private information. The 21-year-old part-time librarian is facing up to two years in prison for revealing what she and many other students perceived as inappropriate and special treatment between the private fashion college and the then leader of the opposition’s family.

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Support for Newman has been vocal with Facebook groups and petitions being created around the issue. But it also calls into question the protections and perceptions of non-government whistleblowers. In the case of Francis Abbott the issue is murky, Francis herself technically did nothing wrong and much of the accusations of favouritism or even bribery are entangled with opinions over how deserving and talented she was.

But when emails from University of Sydney English Professor, Barry Spurr’s, were leaked earlier this week, the wrongdoing was less subjective. New Matilda published a series of racist, homophobic, and misogynistic exchanges between Professor Spurr and friends and colleagues. Although the publication chose to exclude the recipients’ names, they did run the emails largely unedited.

Professor Spurr was promptly suspended and the university issued a statement saying, “Racist, sexist or offensive language is not tolerated at the University of Sydney”. The professor at first attempted to frame his series of exchanges as a “whimsical linguistic game” of one-upmanship, but has yet to offer an apology or further explanation.

Although the incident has raised questions about the levels of ingrained bigotry in higher education, attention has also once again shifted to the nature of how the “hacked” documents were made available. It didn’t take long for New Matilda editor and owner, Chris Graham, and Contributing Editor, Wendy Bacon, to be accused of being behind the unauthorised breaching of Spurr’s work email. The University of Sydney has since launched an investigation over whether an email account was hacked with Professor Spurr suggesting the act was “payback” for participating in a curriculum review.

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Although the pair took to their own site to protest their innocence it touches on the question of rights that was raised during the Freya Newman case. Even if they were guilty, like Freya has been proven to be, when does the weight of the document make up for the way it was attained? The New Matilda editors stated that they made the emails available because it was an issue of public interest and Professor Spurr’s role as an educator meant it was important that this information about him was available. In comparison the publication has hesitated to release the names of the recipients, stating that in their cases: “the public interest case is more complicated and we're still earnestly trying to work through it."

Although Graham and Bacon are presently not facing legal issues, they are being investigated and their reporting on a perceived deep-seated issue with bigotry in modern Australian society is being obscured by hacking allegations. Freya Newman was a librarian, but her initial observation of favouritism in fact opened up questions around financial gifts and private donations. Both cases call into question the parameters around who is classified a whistleblower, and who is just invading and abusing another’s privacy. By saying only some are allowed to speak out, or at least speak out safely, we’re silencing people who are in a position to regulate and report.

The way we speak about people who leak information, be they hackers or whistleblowers, is divided by a perceived social agenda—hackers are trolls and whistleblowers are martyrs.

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While a hacker is someone who accesses another person’s private information, they become a whistleblower when they do so in the public interest. Cynthia Kardell, the President of Whistleblowers Australia explains, “A quintessential whistleblower is someone who is on a mission or wants to achieve something. If they’re motivated and want to achieve a public good.”

The issues around this distinction can easily become subjective, as what is declared in the “public interest” is debatable. Professor Spurr’s words were hateful, but as an educator who had recently served as a special consultant on the federal Department of Education’s school curriculum review he also chose to stand in a position of public responsibility.

Freya Newman’s position was murkier, she was a private citizen who saw an indiscretion. During a time when Prime Minister Abbott was declaring the age of entitlement to be dead, his daughter was being placed at an advantage through family connections. Although her case is in reality less telling that Spurr’s, she is an example of what the whistleblower role is increasingly becoming. Remarking on Newman’s situation, Professor Kardell told VICE, “Within a civil society, we all have a responsibility to play our part in certain ways.”

Kardell goes on to point out that in the wake of our changing security laws, the individual’s role in policing large institutions will be become more important. “How do we know that our government, that we place an amazing amount of trust in, has stepped outside the line and stopped thinking about us, their constituents, as their masters. In war times and times like this they really do treat us on a need-to-know basis.”

Although privacy is an ongoing and ever evolving issue, the role of the whistleblower could also emerge as an antidote for an increasingly closed line of communication between our government and the public. And the impetus will shift to individuals to take responsibility on themselves to make information available where they see it’s lacking.

Although Freya Newman and the editors at the New Matilda acted for different reasons, they were both working in what they perceived to be the interest of a public they saw as being under informed. As we are forced to settle into a new generation of security measures and government silence, we should take comfort in the expanding role of the whistleblower. Where possible, we should also do our own part to protect and support them.

Follow Wendy on Twitter.