The Defining Moments series looks back at the biggest events of 2010 to see what we can learn from them here at P&P, to work better in our calling, in 2011 and beyond.
In July 2010, over 90 thousand documents related to the war in Afghanistan were leaked by WikiLeaks to major newspapers around the world. Later in the month, an “insurance file was made available. The Afghan war documents included six years worth of classified information. They tell of friendly-fire and civilian casualties; of support given to the Taliban by Pakistan, Iran and North Korea; and activities of prisoners and Special Ops forces. The insurance file is assumed to be a blackmail to keep governments or other entities from shutting down or incapacitating Julian Assange, because he could release the key to decrypting it; it is presumed to have information that would harm or embarrass those entities that might do so.
The site had been around since 2006, but this took it to the next level of newsworthiness. The amount and the importance of the information was a step above much of what had come before for WikiLeaks: currently their front page includes information about the Australian governments censorship of an US-based abortion website, a video of a birthday party for a Thai princes dog, and screen shots from Sarah Palins Yahoo! inbox in September 2008 – leaks which are obviously not at the same security level as six years of files on an ongoing war. “We open governments is the WikiLeaks slogan. But do they really?
Watching the ongoing WikiLeaks situation, its impossible not to think: what if there were a pharma version? What we work on is important and involves confidential information. The pharma industry saves lives, and the data needed to do that is highly private: patients most personal information, companys most valuable files. What if someone felt it was his or her mission to publicize names of patients in a study for a medication to treat a condition with any type of stigma attached to it? What if they felt it was journalistically responsible to publicize the details of drug-development plans? There are people who feel that those actions could be ethical. Just check out PharmaGossip or the Cafe Pharma boards if you want to see leaks and dishing dirt: theyre happening all the time.
What Im learning from Wikileaks is this: we must be transparently ethical, but protect privacy to the utmost.
Encryption, confidentiality and security notwithstanding, any digital files could be made public to embarrass or bring charges, if warranted. We can never communicate unprofessionally – because, as we all know, email doesnt understand sarcasm, and a fleeting conversation becomes permanent when its saved or recorded. If what youre saying could be taken badly out of context, are you sure you know why youre saying it?
But we should also keep “constant vigilance. Systems exist to help us do this, but they only work when we use them properly. Keeping information on USB drives, laptops or folders that can get lost; transmitting files insecurely; talking about confidential information in public: The next time you go to a medical convention, keep your eyes and ears open on the plane and in the hotel lobbies. Youd be amazed at what people will say or leave lying around. We all like to believe were smarter than that – be so!