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Privacy Perspectives | When Mass Media Commits a Massive Privacy Invasion Related reading: What does the newest U.S. privacy bill mean for cybersecurity?



It seems as though the world is getting more chaotic by the minute. There have been awful terrorist attacks around the world, seemingly unabated – from Egypt to Paris to Mali to San Bernardino.

And it appears that chaos is infecting the news media.

On Friday, reporters from CNN and MSNBC openly rummaged through the now-deceased San Bernardino attackers’ home like eager shoppers on Black Friday.

Live on TV for everyone to see, reporters unapologetically let the world into this home – a crime scene – sharing baby pictures, clothing, contents of their refrigerator.

And get this: passports, work IDs and even a California state driver’s license.

This is not to say that I sympathize with mass murderers. I don’t. But there’s still an incredible privacy invasion here, not to mention a seeming total disdain for the core ethical compass of journalism: Do the most good while doing the least harm.

One of the IDs they shared, via close up, belonged to one of the attackers' mothers. What good does that serve?

In another instance, a reporter shared a photo of a baby along with the baby’s name. What good does that serve? Could the reporter really not see the potential privacy harm? Fortunately, in this case, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell told the reporter to not show the photo.

Of course, Twitter exploded.

Politicians chimed in:

And privacy scholars:

Plus, we should all know by now, that nothing is "brief" on the Internet:

And now, CNN has issued a defense of its actions:

Why law enforcement has allowed this crime scene to be turned into a flea market is not yet clear, but according to two legal experts on – of all places – CNN, the move to open up the home just days after the mass shooting is unprecedented and irresponsible. San Bernardino’s sheriff has said it was not a cleared crime scene , but, according to the FBI’s lead investigator, once the agency is done with a crime scene, responsibility belongs to the residents of the apartment (apparently this means the landlord of the building – the same man who let the reporters in).

Even CNN's Anderson Cooper expressed concerns about the event:

It’s curious how reporters thought it okay to share people’s ID cards, family photos and even the contents of the refrigerator. Turns out there was a lot of Gatorade in there: Aren't you glad to know that now?

Perhaps you privacy pros recognize the decision-making that was involved here and so horribly botched. Many of you often have to struggle with the public's right to know and individual privacy. Google, with it's Right to be Forgotten panel certainly knows this issue well. Federal government CPOs deal with this on a daily basis. 

Yes, bringing information to light can serve the public good. The public deserves to be given information to help us understand just how an atrocity like this could happen. But do we need to know their child's name? Do we need to know their mother's Social Security number? 

The privacy of this now orphaned child and the grandmother was clearly invaded here. It didn't have to be. People who should know better made a series of decisions in the moment that I would hope they'd like to have a do-over on. Or maybe they need a little privacy training. 

It was somewhat heartening to see such a robust backlash about this insensitive reporting on Twitter, but as we deal with tough issues posed by these new forms of terrorism, I hope our society – and that includes the media – can keep human dignity and privacy in mind.


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  • comment R. Cronk • Dec 7, 2015
    Journalists and the organizations they work for generally have zero regard for security and privacy.
  • comment Denise Dolezal • Dec 9, 2015
    San BernaRdino
  • comment Leslie Brenner • Dec 10, 2015
    Thanks so much, Denise. Fixed!