Where to draw the ethical line on hacking?

I’m shocked, shocked there’s hacking going on in Britain’s tabloid News of the World.  Who would ever imagine that Rupert Murdoch’s journalists could sink so low?  Imagine, hacking attempts by the paper into cell phones belonging to relatives of victims of criminal and terrorist attacks. There seems wide-spread agreement that such hacking of murder victims is “absolutely disgusting,” as British Prime Minister David Cameron said. (see story here)

But where to draw the hacking line can be tricky.  Is it legitimate to approve of hacking of cell-phone conversations of movie stars, politicians, athletes and other famous figures?  Is it legitimate to hack into their social networking sites?  What about private individuals?  May their social networking sites be hacked by journalists?  What about their cell-phone calls?

Investigative Reporters and Editors, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of investigative reporting, regularly provides training sessions to journalists and journalism students on how to obtain information, including mining of social networking sit

es.  And if entering social networking sites unannounced fits the definition of “hacking,” does it logically follow that IRE might be viewed as a hacking training center? http://www.ire.org/

People using social networking sites often engage privacy settings to protect their on-line conversations, with the expectation, however false, that this will ensure their communications remain confidential.  Individuals using cell phones do so with the expectation, also false, that their conversations are confidential.

Assuming that journalistic hacking is ever appropriate – a big assumption and another conversation altogether – where should journalists draw the to-hack or not-to-hack line?  Should libel law’s “public” person designation be the gold standard, thus making all non-private individuals fair game for reporters? And to what extent should social networks and cell phones be treated differently in a world where both are easily hacked?

Wherever a person comes down on these questions, most of the public – and many journalists — agree that somewhere along the line journalistic hacking ceases being legitimate investigative news gathering and morphs into voyeurism.


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