The Internet organization WikiLeaks bills itself as a cyber-Robin-Hood that stops powerful governments from abusing the powerless. That’s its justification for publishing secret documents exposing government’s misdeeds.

Since its launch in 2007, WikiLeaks has exposed corruption in Kenya, U.S. government spying on American antiwar protesters, and military abuses in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with some far more dubious State Department releases that served to damage American credibility abroad.

But its latest document dump, containing a trove of emails by employees at the private intelligence firm Stratfor, gives the final lie to WikiLeaks’ claim that it engages in “principled leaking.”

The latest emails weren’t leaked by a guilt-ridden whistleblower at the company, but stolen by hackers with the shadowy group Anonymous, which has stated that some of its Internet pranks are just for laughs.

Publishing stolen information can be justifiable, if the revelations are important enough and the stakes are high enough — as was the case with the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers, which WikiLeaks holds up as its chief inspiration.

But such decisions need to involve a careful weighing of the costs and benefits of disclosure, and a commitment to disclose only information that clearly serves a public need.

In the Stratfor case, WikiLeaks has shrugged off the need for any judgment at all — and seems bent less on protecting the broad public interest than on furthering private grudges.

Notably, many of the emails are simply banter between Stratfor employees about WikiLeaks itself. One message, using a schoolyard insult, mocks WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for his “astonishing” gall, while another says he should have his head dunked in a Guantanamo Bay toilet bowl.

It’s hard to argue that publishing such emails exposes a great injustice in the world. Instead, their publication makes WikiLeaks appear to be on a petty personal crusade.

Stratfor is hardly the most sympathetic victim. The emails reveal that the company sought to cash in on the environment of fear created by past WikiLeaks document dumps by marketing strategies to combat leaks.

A cat-and-mouse game between hackers and security firms may be fun for the former and potentially profitable for the latter. But the results are sure to be chilling if private electronic communications are regularly stolen and exposed just because they can be.

In a world like that, groups like WikiLeaks and Anonymous become all-powerful, while the rest of us become powerless to hold them accountable.

— The Boston Globe

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