While most of the recent coverage of WikiLeaks has focused on Assange’s trial, an important bit of news is the alleged conflict between Bank of America and the organization.
WikiLeaks apparently has some documents that would be damaging to Bank of America. This is hardly surprising, given the sort of financial misdeeds that seem to have been business as usual for many of the big financial companies. Apparently the security company of HBGary Federal saw this as an opportunity and developed a rather nefarious plan that involved attempting to discredit WikiLeaks by submitting false information to the site, to expose those who have contributed to WikiLeaks and by launching attacks on journalists who have expressed sympathy for WikiLeaks. In addition to the security company, it also appears that the well connected law firm of Hunton & William and even the United States Justice Department were also involved to some degree.
In response to this, Anonymous (a self-proclaimed defender of WikiLeaks) launched a counterattack on HBGary Federal and its head, Aaron Barr. Ironically, Anonymous was able to hack the security company and revealed not only the plans in question but also such things as the fact that Barr’s wife intends to divorce him. They even revealed the name of his WoW character, a level 80 Night Elf Druid. That is certainly an interesting nerdtastic touch.
On the face of it, it seems that HBGary Federal and Barr reaped what they had sown. After all, by engaging in such activities and planning to engage what certainly seem to be unethical and even illegal activities, they certainly seem to deserve to be exposed and even subject to punishment. Since the authorities appear to not be inclined to take action in regards to these activities, it could be argued that this was a state of nature situation which justified Anonymous in taking action in its own defense and the defense of others. This could thus be seen as a falling nicely within John Locke’s theory regarding self defense and punishment in the state of nature.
It could, of course, be objected that Anonymous is in the wrong. After all, Anonymous launched some minor attacks against companies such as PayPal for ceasing to do business with WikiLeaks. Also, WikiLeaks itself has engaged in activities that some consider unethical and illegal. On these assumptions, it could be thus argued that HBGary Federal was acting in an ethically acceptable manner by trying to stop wrongdoers and to protect Bank of America and others from the danger posed by WikiLeaks and its allies. As such, HBGary Federal could be seen as acting as a vigilante. Of course, vigilantism might strike many as morally questionable so perhaps it is better to cast the company as acting within a cyber state of nature. In this state, the company has to act in ways that seem to go beyond the law because its chosen opponents (Anonymous, WikiLeaks, supporters, and journalist) are beyond the reach of the law.
The main and most obvious flaw in this objection is that while Anonymous and WikiLeaks have endeavored to remain outside of the reach of certain authorities, the authorities do have the means to impose their laws upon them. Even if they are regarded as criminals, they would thus still seem to be within the state of society and thus can legitimately expect to not be subject to unlawful action and vigilante style attacks. While it might be argued that Anonymous and WikiLeaks act as vigilantes and thus can be justly subject to vigilante attacks, this would be on par with arguing that criminals can be treated in criminal ways because they are criminals. It would also appear to be a case of a “two wrongs make a right” fallacy.
If Anonymous and WikiLeaks were, in fact, beyond the reach of the law and were engaged in wrongful acts, then a case could be made for vigilantism. After all, if the wronged parties had no recourse to the law, then they would seem to have the right (as per Locke) to seek to stop the wrongdoers and gain reparation for the damage done. However, this does not seem to be the case at all.
A second flaw is that the journalists that were supposed to be targeted were obviously not in a state of nature or beyond the law. If the journalists had acted in illegal ways, then they could be dealt with within the legal system. Naturally, it could be objected that since the journalists cannot be stopped via legal means, they must be stopped via what seem to be illegal (and what seem to be clearly unethical means) means. This objection would, of course, have some merit if the journalists were in the wrong and were being protected by unjust laws. However, this does not seem to be the case and the objection has no real merit. As such, it seems that a company was acting outside of the law and was hoisted by its own petard.