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Using hacked data to serve the public interest

By Tierra Smith

Data journalists explained the problems they encountered using hacked data during a panel at the 2016 CAR Conference in Denver. Hacking is illegally accessing a computer system that you do not have permission to use.

Not only can the hacker face criminal charges, but journalists could as well. In order to avoid consequences, journalists must use hacked data to serve the public interest.

Nabiha Syed, assistant general counsel for BuzzFeed, said this requires a thoughtful process. Journalists need to determine if the newsworthiness of the data outweighs the risks of using it.

Syed, along with Jack Gillum, a reporter for The Associated Press, and Quinn Norton, an independent journalist, spoke to journalists Friday. Jeremy Singer-Vine, the data editor at BuzzFeed News, moderated the panel.

There are many aspects to consider if journalists want to use hacked data. Journalists should consider the motivation of the hacker and the possibility of tampered data.

How journalists use data will determine the fate of future litigation. The main reason to publish any story from hacked data should be the public interest, Gillum said.

Journalists must also determine what is important to publish from the data. Journalists can get into legal trouble for publishing personal information, such as social security numbers.

Norton said to be cautious about how data is stored. Journalists don’t want to be responsible for hacked data being leaked. If the data is not essential to the story, she suggested that you delete it.

There will be times that you won’t be able to use hacked data. The data may be in a different language that is nearly impossible to translate. Some newsrooms may not have the technology to protect journalists, the company or the data.

Syed also warns not to work with the hacker or ask the hacker to get certain information.

“Don’t go down this road,” she said.

Journalists must receive the data without encouraging hackers. Journalists should not be a part of the data collection process at all. If so, they can be charged with a felony.

Syed also advised that journalists not publish data they haven’t looked at first.

Not all hacked data will be a story, and Norton said that is okay. She suggested that journalists look for several stories within the data, then determine which of those stories service the public interest the most.


Tierra Smith is a graduate student at Louisiana State University. She is pursuing a master's in mass communication with plans to finish May 2017.

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