Revealing confidential information is a breach of trust but sometimes maintaining that privacy is an even bigger breach. While you usually only gain access to confidential information after explicitly committing to maintaining that privacy, there are times when you may not obey that promise. Yet it must still serve as your guide absent specific extenuating conditions.
Wikileaks is an organization that publishes documents alleging government and corporate misconduct. It takes confidential documents, attempts to verify their accuracy, and then posts them on the internet to publicize the allegations (link). Does Jewish law allow someone with incriminating documents to publish them via Wikileaks or any similar venue?
II. Revealing Secrets
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 31a) tells the story of a student who told, twenty five years after the fact, a secret from the study hall. Rav Ami kicked him out of the study hall and announced that he is one who reveals secrets. As Rashi explains, revealing a secret falls under the category of talebearing, lashon ha-ra. (Or, as some ammend Rashi, one who reveals a secret is considered a spreader of lashon ha-ra.)
Based on this Gemara, the Semag (prohibition 9), cited also by the Hagahos Maimoniyos (Hilkhos Dei’os 7:7), rules that if someone tells you explicitly that something is a secret, even if he told it to you in front of a large group, you are prohibited from revealing it. Rabbenu Yonah writes in Sha’arei Teshuvah (3:225): “One is obligated to conceal a secret told him by his fellow even if there is no issue of talemongering in revealing the secret.”
Technically, revealing classified information about misconduct is not lashon ha-ra or hotza’as shem ra. It is rekhilus, because you are revealing information that is unrelated to you and the general public. This falls under the prohibition of Lev. 19:16, “You shall not be a talebearer among your people.”
The conclusion of that verse is: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” It is not talebearing if you are preventing harm from befalling a potential victim. When you are revealing misconduct that can prevent someone from suffering physical harm, you are doing a mitzvah.
The Sifra on that verse adds that you may also not stand idly by if your neighbor is suffering financial damage. If you can prevent that loss then you must. Revealing confidential information is allowed if it will prevent someone from suffering unfair financial harm.
There are some limitations on this obligation if you might suffer physical or financial harm yourself by revealing this information (cf. R. Aaron Levine, Moral Issues of the Marketplace in Jewish Law, pp. 428-438). But we are discussing anonymous postings to an international website where there is, presumably, little to no danger of harm.
IV. Limiting Guidelines
A person who reveals information, however, must conform to a number of considerations detailed in the classic work Chafetz Chaim (lashon ha-ra 10:1-17, rekhilus 9:1-15). R. Asher Meir (The Jewish Ethicist, p. 50) summarizes them as follows:
- Accuracy – It is forbidden to exaggerate or embellish.
- Benefit – Revealing the information must be the only way to obtain some constructive benefit.
- Certainty – We must be sure the information is reliable.
- Desire – The teller’s intention must be constructive, not vindictive.
- Equity – The revelation must not cause undeserved damage to the subject. It is not equitable to protect one person at the expense of another.
There are cases where revealing confidential information through a service such as Wikileaks is not only acceptable but obligatory. It is, however, a tool that is easily manipulated and misused. Its potential for damage is as remarkable as its ability to improve the world. Like all tools, we have to use it wisely. The jury is still out over the wisdom and responsibility of Wikileaks (link).