Wikileaks - Could big business be next?

by Rajesh Chhabara

, by Ethical Corporation

Unethical companies could be the next target of Wikileaks

While powerful governments have scrambled to control or limit the damage caused by the release of secret communications, it may be only a matter of time before confidential information about large companies finds its way to Wikileaks, the whistle blower website.

Wikileaks has already claimed that it has damaging documents against a major US bank, widely speculated to be Bank of America, and also against BP. And Wikileaks continues to acquire more data, including details about Swiss bank accounts in January.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has said, in an interview with Forbes magazine, that half of the unpublished material that Wikileaks possesses pertains to the private sector.

Embarrassing material relating to the Swiss bank Julius Baer, the Kaupthing Bank in Iceland, Barclays, JP Morgan and the Toll Collect Consortium in Germany has already been published by Wikileaks. And Assange continues to say he would like to pressure companies to behave ethically.

In his Forbes magazine interview, Assange says: “Wikileaks means it’s easier to run a good business and harder to run a bad business, and all CEOs should be encouraged by this.”

Companies operating in socially and politically sensitive sectors such as oil and gas, mining, defence, infrastructure and pharmaceuticals should beware. Technology and Wall Street firms and banks may be particularly at risk.

A number of companies in these sectors may have dirty secrets such as human rights violations, tax avoidance, bribery, health and safety lapses, lobbying, anti-competition tactics, corporate espionage and environmental destruction. Releasing any secrets could bring irreparable reputational disaster for the companies involved.

Other companies may worry about protecting genuine trade secrets such as research and development, product innovation, customer database and intellectual property from espionage.

Security review

Corporate security experts say companies need to review their information technology security measures closely to minimise the risk of a disgruntled insider handing over secrets to an outsider. Areas of potential risks include emails, information on databases, confidential documents and contracts.

Rebecca MacKinnon, an internet freedom advocate and currently a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington DC, says that apart from effective information security, trust between management and employees will play an important part in protecting companies from the leak.

She says trust is influenced by whether employees have a respect for what the company is doing. “The more the company’s public statements and public image are inconsistent with its actual practices, the more likely employees will feel personally betrayed, and somebody will leak information.

MacKinnon argues that companies have the absolute right to protect their proprietary information. But they should expect that proprietary information which covers up illegal, unethical, and immoral behaviour cannot remain hidden.

Wikileaks has taken a moral stand for what it does. Its mission statement reads: “Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people. Better scrutiny leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies in all society’s institutions, including government, corporations and other organisations.”

Could Wikileaks change reporting and disclosure as we know it? Some say yes. Time magazine says Wikileaks could become as important a journalistic tool as the Freedom of Information Act, a quote that the website is proud to boast.