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WikiLeaks exposed sensitive data on hundreds of innocent people, including rape victims

AP report adds to growing concerns over how transparency group handles sensitive information

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WikiLeaks has exposed the personal data on hundreds of ordinary citizens, including rape victims, sick children, and the mentally ill, according to a report published today by the Associated Press. In its analysis, the AP found that the transparency group published medical files on "scores" of innocent people, and that it "routinely" publishes other sensitive information that can be exploited by criminals, including identity records and phone numbers.

WikiLeaks has long committed itself to exposing government secrets through the publication of diplomatic cables and other classified information. But the organization has come under increased criticism for the way it handles personal data, after it published emails sent by Turkey's ruling AKP party and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in July. In the DNC leak, WikiLeaks did not redact social security numbers and credit card information, and it faced criticism for publishing a "special database" on nearly every female Turkish voter as part of the AKP leak. (Links to the database were later removed.)

"What is the use of publishing my story?"

The AP reports that WikiLeaks' growing collection of documents includes viruses and spam in addition to sensitive information on innocent people. A trove of diplomatic cables from Saudi Arabia's Foreign Ministry, first published last year, includes at least 124 medical files, according to the AP, including those belonging to mentally ill patients, children, and refugees. Transparency activist Paul Dietrich tells the AP that he uncovered more than 500 passports, employment files, and academic records after conducting a partial scan of the Saudi cables.

The organization also named teenage rape victims in two different cases, and published the name of a Saudi citizen who had been arrested for being gay — an offense punishable by death under Saudi law. Other files on Saudi marriages, divorces, and custody battles contained information on people who married women with sexually transmitted diseases, personal debt histories, and other sensitive data.

A WikiLeaks spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Verge, but the organization has defended its vetting practices in the past. "We have a harm minimization policy," WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said in 2010. "There are legitimate secrets. Your records with your doctor, that's a legitimate secret." The organization described the report as "ridiculous" in a tweet posted Tuesday.

The AP is not identifying the people affected by the leaks, though it did contact 23 individuals, most of whom were in Saudi Arabia. Some were unaware or unbothered by the exposure, while others — including a partially disabled woman whose secret debt was revealed — were mortified. "This is a disaster," the woman told the AP. "What if my brothers, neighbors, people I know or even don't know have seen it? What is the use of publishing my story?"

Update August 23rd, 7:10AM ET: Updated to include tweet from WikiLeaks