Julian Assange has become a celebrity of late because of his organization’s mission to shout from the rooftops information that others would prefer to keep secret. Some see Mr. Assange as a kind of vandal, others as a crusader. Whatever you think of him or WikiLeaks, it is clear that he is operating out of an ethical center. His motto seems to be, “sunshine is the best antiseptic.” The WikiLeaks website states: “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 [sic].” (http://22.214.171.124/about.html) In other words, the WikiLeaks goal is to make the world a better place. Whether it succeeds in this goal or not is a matter of opinion and perspective.
While I have some sympathy for the WikiLeaks mission as an exercise of free speech, I have not always been impressed with what it has accomplished. But to reflect even more personally on this international news story, WikiLeaks’ mission contrasts dramatically with my life as a keeper of secrets. As a prospect researcher, it is my duty to protect private information. I am reminded of a line in the APRA position paper on privacy (http://www.aprahome.org/PrivacyandProspectResearch/tabid/225/Default.aspx): “The availability of information in the public domain does not drive the collection of data nor supersede ethical principles and practices in its use.”
Though the source material for all prospect research is public data that is available to anyone, we must exercise judgment informed by the ethical standards of our profession as to what properly should be collected. The power of information is not in its availability, but in its collection and organization. There are many reasons to collect and organize information, but prospect researchers do this for one reason only: to enhance a relationship between a donor who wants to do something good and an organization whose mission is in line with the donor’s values. We collect and interpret donor information to help understand what motivates the donor and what capabilities the donor has. We honor the donor by doing our homework before asking him or her to join our organization in advancing its mission. And we respect the donor by keeping private all of the information we have collected.
Contrasted in this way, Julian Assange and prospect researchers have two very different ideas of how to make the world a better place to live in. It must be said that WikiLeaks does keep secrets too. They protect the sources of their leaks. One wonders if they also protect donor information as assiduously.