Ethical Case Study

Ethics Presentation: The U.S. Olympics and Leaked Medical Records

I. The Case

On Sept. 13, a group called Fancy Bear hacked the World Anti-Doping Agency’s database and released the private medical information of four U.S. Olympians.  The group, possibly the same Russian hackers that penetrated the Democratic National Committee, published the private information of  gymnast Simone Biles, basketball gold medalist Elena Delle Donne, and tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. Since then, Fancy Bear has released the medical data of dozens of athletes in four more batches.


US Magazine’s headline.

On their website, the Fancy Bears introduce themselves:


“Greetings citizens of the world,” the homepage reads. “Allow us to introduce ourselves…We are the Fancy Bears’ international hack team. We stand for fair play and clean sport. We announce the start of #OpOlympics. We are going to tell you how Olympic medals are won. We hacked the World Anti-Doping Agency databases and we were shocked. We will start with the U.S. team which has disgraced its name by tainted victories. We will also disclose exclusive information about other national Olympic teams later. Wait for sensational proof of famous athletes taking doping substances any time soon.”

The medical records that the group released on Sept. 13 revealed that Biles, Donne and the Williams sisters had received medical exemptions to use banned drugs and included drug testing results and documents called “Certificate[s] of Approval for Therapeutic Use.” Fancy Bear claimed that these certificates effectively allowed athletes to engage in state-sanctioned doping.

Therapeutic use exemptions, according to the World Anti-Doping Agency, allow athletes who have a medical need for medications on the banned substances list to take those substances. Athletes can have their doctors fill out forms to provide information on conditions including asthma, diabetes, and ADHD, and the athletes won’t be penalized for failing tests for drugs that they’ve reported they’re taking.

Athletes have responded to the leak by stating that they had followed all the rules to report their medical conditions and medication.


II. The Ethical Dilemma

Several ethical questions arise from this situation: Should the media report on the hack at all? Is it ethical to report on leaked medical records? Should they link to the Fancy Bear website or the leaked documents?

As far as I can tell, most media outlets chose to report on the hack. In this case, reporters would have had to weigh whether reporting the hack of an international organization was more important concerns about athletes’ privacy and giving the hacking group legitimacy.

Since medical records are private information, reporters would have had to decide whether to publish specifics about what certain athletes tested positive for and what medical conditions they reported to receive a therapeutic use exemption. Here, truth again conflicts with minimizing harm. How much exactly does the public need to know? Most media organizations reported solely on the hack and mentioned what athletes were effected, but didn’t go into specifics about athletes’ medical conditions or what drugs they were taking. Judging by the comments on organizations’ websites, this led to confusion and frustration in readers, who wanted to know more details.

Finally, media organizations had to weigh how much to report on the Fancy Bear group itself. Most articles mentioned the hacker organization, but various outlets treated the information differently. Several, including the New York Post, linked directly to the website where the private medical records were posted. Several included screen shots of the site or of leaked medical records.

This is a particularly difficult ethical equation to solve, since providing the public with more information means compromising the privacy of individual Olympians and giving legitimacy to a foreign hacker organization.

Questions to talk about in class:

  • What ethical imperatives are in contention in this case?
  • Should the media have reported on this hack at all? Is this something the public needs to know?
  • How does this case compare to the hack of the Democratic National Committee? What are the ethical differences between reporting on the two cases?
  • Should the Fancy Bears be given media attention? Does this encourage their illegal activities?
  • How much attention should individual medical records be given?
  • Should the media link to the Fancy Bear website or post screenshots of hacked medical records?
  • What would ideal media coverage of this look like?

6 thoughts on “Ethics Presentation: The U.S. Olympics and Leaked Medical Records

  1. It is very interesting how much the ethics of leaked or hacked information has come into the forefront in the last 5 to 10 years. I’m sure that as the digital age progresses, media sources will develop guidelines for how to treat hacks and similar instances, but for now it is considered on a case-to-case basis. Ethically, I don’t think it was wrong for the news sources to report on the hack and on the information released. It would have been unethical for the news sources to obtain the information illegally and then release it, but in this case the information was already out there and it was definitely news worthy that the World Anti-Doping Agency had been hacked.

    The part of this case that gives me pause is the idea of “giving legitimacy to a foreign hacker organization.” This is an interesting dilemma that I think falls under the same umbrella of discussion as whether or not to identify shooters. We would never think to not report on the shooting up of a nightclub in Florida or of an elementary school in Connecticut, but news sources have been flirting with the idea of not naming or releasing photos of the shooters as to not glamorize them. In the same vein, I think it is ethical to report on the news of the hack and the subsequent information, but I would have to think twice about how much to report on the organization itself.


  2. This is a very interesting case and I’m glad you brought it up as it was never something I never questioned ethically but now that you present the case, there is a clear ethical dilemma. The question of whether or not to report it at all is a tough one. On one hand, you could argue that the public needs to know if the information has been released as it’s in the public’s best interest to be informed on their country’s athletes. On the other hand, it can be said that they shouldn’t publish the information in the first place as it is medical records and they are private regardless of the public status of the athletes involved. I lean toward covering the hack as I feel it’s better for major news organizations to report it rather than letting it be covered by un-reputible sources on the internet as I believe that providing accurate and trustworthy information is better than leaving the internet to speculate.

    Another point that bothered me is that many outlets covered who was involved without explaining the conditions of those named. I think that for fairness reasons, if you’re already going to release the names and records of the athletes, the reason for the medication should be included to avoid misleading the public and encouraging speculation. The other option would be to not release the names but explain that those high profile individuals on the list are taking the banned substances for reasons acceptable to the organization.


  3. I did not know about this issue at all – I remember seeing something in the headlines about anti-doping and Rio athletes but this is truly shocking to me. I understand on one hand why this hacking organization, Fancy Bear, feels that they have to out these athletes for positive drug tests, especially in light of the decision by the IOC to ban several Russian athletes from the Rio games this past summer due to an enormous doping scandal (if Russia was held accountable, why shouldn’t the Americans be as well?). I also understand there is a compelling argument for publishing these leaked documents because a) they’re already out there on the internet anyways for people to see and b) this is a matter of national and international importance. The US Olympic team absolutely dominated the medal count at the Rio games, and if it was found that the athletes in any way cheated with banned substance use, it would be a national disgrace.
    However in this instance, I simply cannot condone the publishing of these records by respected news organizations chiefly because these are personal sealed documents that have a specific privilege attached to them between doctor and patient. I ask myself – would I want my medical history made public? As you can see, repercussions from this outing forced Simone Biles to disclose her lifelong battle with ADHD, information she was entirely entitled to keep private. If the anti-doping agencies, especially in light of the Russian scandal, found that the drugs Biles, Williams and other athletes were using were permissible in the context of medical conditions then it really doesn’t seem that the US was in the wrong or perpetrating a scandal of any sort which makes this information non-newsworthy. When you balance the principles of truth seeking and minimizing harm, it seems that the minimizing harm argument would take precedence here.


  4. Obviously, had there not been a hack, no organizations should have report on the medical records of athletes. It’s a very private topic. However, the hack was a crime that needed to be covered and that unfortunately meant reporting information about the records. I think it was sound judgment to only include as much information on the athlete’s records as absolutely necessary. However, if these athletes are taking drugs legally, it is important that news stories include what information is necessary to make it clear to the reader that this is medically justified. Otherwise, you could lead people to believe something illicit had happened when it hadn’t, and this doesn’t hold with minimizing harm. You’re hurting the athletes, and you’re doing so unnecessarily and unfairly. The misleading headline you included that said “positive drug test outed” is an example of how not fully clarifying the important information in this story can be unfair and damaging to the athlete’s reputations.


  5. This is a very interesting case of ethical decision-making in journalism and one that I’ve never given much thought to before. My first instinct was to object against the publishing of the athletes’ medical records for the sole reason this is very private information. However, as a journalist, I know the newsworthiness of the hack and would also want to inform the public as truthfully as possible of what has been revealed by the hacking organization. Since the information was already made public by the hackers, my job as a journalist would be to find out the truth, analyze the facts I gathered and make a judgment as to whether what I publish is what the public needs to know, and how I can minimize harm. My aim would be to report accurately on what exactly the athletes were taking medication in order not to mislead the public. Vagueness and absence of information might cause further damage in such a sensitive case of national and international importance.


  6. [Corrected version]

    Elise, I think you make a good point dissecting whether hacking medical records is both ethical for an individual to do or a worthy justification for any media professional. In regards to journalism ethics, I think this goes back to our very same discussion regarding leaking any type of classified documents, whether this is Donald Trump’s (now released) tax returns or the 1971 infamous Pentagon papers case, it bares witness to the fact whether the contained information is worthy and beneficial to the public’s interest. Though it contains truthful information, the harm caused by the story and the intentions behind disseminating this information does not make it an ethical publication to me.

    Given that these leaked medical records concerning US athletes did not reveal any detrimental information as they were exempted for taking certain drugs for a waived conditional prescription, it only creates unnecessary drama that neither benefits the hardworking, rule-abiding athletes or changes much of the public’s opinion on these famous individuals. I think this may very well be another example of when journalists fall victim to sensationalistic stories that will generate attention but aren’t incredibly insightful.


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