New Type Of Whistle-Blower: Young, Internet Savvy And Headed For Jail

virtual whistle-blowers, man in Guy Fawkes maskWhen NSA contractor Edward Snowden reportedly blew the whistle on two enormous government surveillance programs, he did it old-school, leaking documents to two esteemed reporters. But a recent report finds that more whistle-blowers are publishing the secrets themselves -- online (like the infamous hackers of Anonymous, pictured right). This leaves them vulnerable to employer-retaliation as the laws lag behind the new realities of cyberspace.

Miriam Cherry, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law and author of the report, calls them "virtual whistle-blowers." Unlike past generations, they're blogging, dropping surreptitious videos onto YouTube or leaking documents to online groups such as WikiLeaks, as Bradley Manning allegedly did. Cherry points to a growing army of "whistle-bloggers," employees who blog -- usually anonymously -- about illegal activities at their places of work. No state so far, she notes, has whistle-blower laws on the books to explicitly protect bloggers -- let alone the people who post YouTube videos or leak to Wikileaks.

This week, Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst, is being court martialed for having given hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. Deric Lostutter, an IT security consultant and member of the hacking group Anonymous, had published social media messages, photos and videos in which Steubenville, Ohio, football players ridiculed a teenage rape victim; now he faces far more prison time than the convicted rapists themselves.

According to Cherry, U.S. whistle-blower laws, already a confusing patchwork of statutes, are completely inadequate when it comes to new forms of whistle-blowing. "Some of the statutes talk about 'media.' In some of them, there's even reference to journalists," she says about America's piecemeal whistle-blower protections. "But no statute to date has decided to protect people who are bloggers, who are on YouTube -- people who are going on the Internet."

So if you want to blow the whistle and keep the law on your side, experts say that this is your best strategy:

Report issues internally first. It helps your case if you've exhausted all the options within your organization. But be careful; when a British charity recently surveyed 1,000 whistle-blowers, 74 percent said nothing was done when they spoke up, and 15 percent said they were fired.

Go to the appropriate government agency. Courts tend to smile on whistle-blowers who report concerns to the proper regulatory agencies, such as the Securities Exchange Commission, in cases of financial fraud; the IRS, in cases of tax evasion; or the Environmental Protection Agency, in cases of polluting the environment.

Next stop: the 'professional' media. If the agency doesn't take it seriously (or if there isn't an appropriate agency to go to), an employee would be wise to turn to the media, according to Richard Carlson, professor at the South Texas College of Law. "If you self-publish, there's no gatekeeper, and a lot of what people self-publish could be rank defamation, or rank speculation," he says. "Without going through a third-party, who can serve as a check against the anarchy of the Internet, there can be a lot of unnecessary damage."

Keep in mind whistlblowing is always high-risk. The whistle-blowers that the media most often covers tend to have heroic tales: They discover corruption, speak truth to power, land a multimillion dollar settlement, get selected as Time's "Person of the Year," and then spend the rest of their days inspiring crowds on big-buck speaking tours.

More: 10 Whistle-Blowers Heard Around The World

But that's only because we don't hear about most whistle-blowers: the drawn-out lawsuits, the ruined careers, the broken marriages and the justice that never comes. "They rarely have happy endings," says Carlson. "This is the great myth. The [whistle-blowers] that I know strike me as people who still feel a lot of pain -- and they aren't making a lot of money."

Play to public opinion. If it's a high-profile case, how you whistle-blow might help sway the court of public opinion. The mainstream media has tried to distance itself from the anarchic ethos of WikiLeaks, and Snowden publicly contrasted his restraint with Manning's document dump.

If you're leaking classified government documents, good luck. But if you're disclosing sensitive classified materials, it probably doesn't matter much in the end. Whether a whistle-blower tells their story to "a blogger or The New York Times ... the government has seemed to go the same way, which is to prosecute them under The Espionage Act," says Kathleen McClellan, national security and human rights director for the Government Accountability Project, a group dedicated to protecting whistle-blowers.

Ultimately, this is an administration that has indicted a record number of government officials on leak-related charges, and it "has shown a willingness to go after anyone who releases something classified," says McClellan, "including The Associated Press -- that's not exactly a blogger outlet."

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