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Secrets in Cyberspace: When is it ethical to reveal secrets on the internet


In September, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge after being outed by his roommate on Twitter and Facebook. A couple of months later the release of hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. government documents by WikiLeaks led to death threats and worldwide praise for founder Julian Assange, declarations of a new era of greater public awareness, and warnings of a grave new threat to national security. The documents may also have been the catalyst for revolt against the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and possibly a wave of change across the Arab world. As new leak-sharing organizations modeled after WikiLeaks appear, the issues of exposure, censorship and safety in cyberspace have come to the forefront of our public discussion.

While truth is a worthy ideal, clearly some things are better kept secret. It may be easy to label lies as unethical, but what about revealing the truth? What might put others in danger? What is too important not to share with the world – and how do we decide?

When is it ethical to reveal secrets on the Internet?



  • Reading of suggested materials below
  • General understanding of the major issues in question:
    • The value of government transparency
    • Reasons for governments and individuals to maintain information secret
    • The general responsiblities of journalists
    • The difference between cosmopolitanism and patriotism



Most of these are short and intended to give the reader an introduction to the problem.









Do: Ask students to think about and discuss the following questions:

    • WikiLeaks’ release of confidential US State Department documents was celebrated by many across the world for making American operations and international relations more transparent to the public. The US government, however, warned that the mass of release of such sensitive information could compromise informants, lead to the death of soldiers, undermine its progress, and further destabilize regions. Given such concerns, how would you decide what information to release to the public?


  • We usually consider transparency in government to be a very good thing – reducing waste and corruption, and exposing wrongdoing. What would you consider to be the type of information that governments should not make available to the public?
  • What would you release if you were running an organization like WikiLeaks that saw itself as serving an cosmopolitan (concerned with the welfare of humanity in general), rather than patriotic, cause bound by the same principles?
  • Social network sites like Facebook allow users to post information and pictures of friends and strangers alike without their consent. In response, many of us have adjusted our privacy expectations to acknowledge the existence of a public presence we cannot fully control. That said, how do we exercise good judgment on what information about others we should make public on social network sites?
  • Is there any information that should not be published on the web about others because it provides us too much information (as teenagers would say T.M.I.) about someone’s private life – things that should remain out of the public eye?


* For additional ideas on assignments and lesson plan you might develop with this material, visit our suggestions for incorporating lessons ethics into your course page.