[Air-L] Ethics of using hacked data.

Katherine Carpenter carpenter.katherinej at gmail.com
Thu Oct 8 11:24:18 PDT 2015

Just to clarify on the topic of journalists being comfortable using and/or
publishing stolen/"hacked" data: in the United States because of the
freedom of the press, journalists and the publications they work for are
not liable for publishing information that was originally illegally
obtained, although the journalist and publication did not behave illegally
to obtain the data, and when publishing the information is in the public
interest. This protection is likely not to apply to researchers unless used
specifically in the publication context. Some other nations have this
protection and most do not especially when the publicized (and/or illegally
obtained) information violates individual privacy rights.

It is really difficult to find a balance between using information that is
very useful, illegally obtained and publicly available for research that
could be interesting and potentially benefit society. Ultimately we should
be working toward obtaining the kinds of information we want and need with
the consent of the organizations and/or individuals who are part of the
data sets we want to create. It would be much easier to involve
organizations and individuals in research if a level of trust in
researchers already existed so people know they are doing the right thing
and/or protecting the data they acquire. This is still a work-in-progress.

Just my $0.02.


On Wed, Oct 7, 2015 at 1:11 PM, Nathaniel Poor <natpoor at gmail.com> wrote:

> Hello list-
> I recently got into a discussion with a colleague about the ethics of using
> hacked data, specifically the Patreon hacked data (see here:
> http://arstechnica.com/security/2015/10/gigabytes-of-user-data-from-hack-of-patreon-donations-site-dumped-online/
> ).
> He and I do crowdfunding work, and had wanted to look at Patreon, but as
> far as I can tell they have no easy hook into all their projects (for
> scraping), so, to me this data hack was like a gift! But he said there was
> no way we could use it. We aren't doing sentiment analysis or anything, we
> would use aggregated measures like funding levels and then report things
> like means and maybe a regression, so there would be no identifiable
> information whatsoever derived from the hacked data in any of our resulting
> work (we might go to the site and pull some quotes).
> I looked at the AoIR ethics guidelines (
> http://aoir.org/reports/ethics2.pdf
> ), and didn't see anything specifically about hacked data (I don't think
> "hacked" is the best word, but I don't like "stolen" either, but those are
> different discussions).
> One relevant line I noticed was this one:
> "If access to an online context is publicly available, do
> members/participants/authors
> perceive the context to be public?" (p. 8)
> So, the problem with the data is that it's the entire website, so some was
> private and some was public, but now it's all public and everyone knows
> it's public.
> To me, I agree that a lot of the data in the data-dump had been intended to
> be private -- apparently, direct messages are in there -- but we wouldn't
> use that data (it's not something we're interested in). We'd use data like
> number of funders and funding levels and then aggregate everything. I see
> that some of it was meant to be private, but given the entire site was
> hacked and exported I don't see how currently anyone could have an
> expectation of privacy any more. I'm not trying to torture the definition,
> it's just that it was private until it wasn't.
> I can see that some academic researchers -- at least those in computer
> security -- would be interested in this data and should be able to publish
> in peer reviewed journals about it, in an anonymized manner (probably as an
> example of "here's a data hack like what we are talking about, here's what
> hackers released").
> I also think that probably every script kiddie has downloaded the data, as
> has every grey and black market email list spammer, and probably every
> botnet purveyor (for passwords) and maybe even the hacking arm of the
> Chinese army and the NSA. My point here is that if we were to use the data
> in academic research we wouldn't be publicizing it to nefarious people who
> would misuse it since all of those people already have it. We could maybe
> help people who want to use crowdfunding some (hopefully!) if we have some
> results. (I guess I don't see that we would be doing any harm by using it.)
> So, what do people think? Did I miss something in the AoIR guidelines? I
> realize I don't think it's clear either way, or I wouldn't be asking, so
> probably the answers will point to this as a grey area (so why do I even
> ask, I am not sure).
> But I'm not looking for "You can't use it because it's hacked," because I
> don't think that explains anything. I could counter that with "It is
> publicly available found data," because it is, although I don't think
> that's the best reply either. Both lack nuance.
> -Nat
> --
> Nathaniel Poor, Ph.D.
> http://natpoor.blogspot.com
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