The battles whistleblowers have to fight

Updated: Jun 18, 2013, 11:18 AM IST

A sizable number of people in power have been heard these days saying that people must be willing to give up a degree of personal privacy in exchange of security and safety. True, very true. But, the moot question is: how much? The recent revelations by a former CIA employee, Edward Snowden and by WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange, raise many pressing and unnerving questions, for everybody across the world, whether or not connected to the World Wide Web.

The nature of the beast called the Internet is such that it thrives on information that flows freely across boundaries. Its users have no option but to entrust their confidential information with the multitude of service providers, with the hope that their respective governments are monitoring the latter. However, what Snowden has revealed has brought the focus on something that has been talked about mostly in private circles, especially that of technology specialists. The former CIA employee claimed that the US government has been hacking into computers across the world, and has been collecting certain user information from Internet companies and phone service providers, with the objective of keeping a tab on terrorists. This revelation, if true, has some serious ramifications and poses some dangerous questions. Is any information on the Internet really ‘private’ even after selecting the appropriate privacy settings? If high-security systems like that of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) can be breached, what confidence can one have in anything else? Was it the gigantic proportion of the breach of public trust that led Snowden to take such a drastic step? This article aims to understand the motivations, and trials and tribulations of whistleblowers like Snowden.

Whistleblowing has been in existence since time immemorial. However, the Internet has given whistleblowers like Snowden a bigger platform and reach. How should an act of whistleblowing be treated? Should it be treated like an act of treason? Are some people right in calling for Snowden’s execution? Should criminal charges be filed against whistleblowers like him? Should he be sent to jail for as long as possible, as some are suggesting? Do whistleblowers breach sacred trust of their employers by reporting the latter’s misdeeds? Are there better and legitimate alternatives for reporting fraud of people and organisations in power? Are such acts motivated by greed and a desire for fame?

It is ironic, though not surprising, that the views of the government are usually in contrast to that of their subjects at large. Ironic because the former is expected to reflect and understand the views of the latter, and not surprising because it is quite commonplace. Many people are calling Snowden a ‘hero’, just like Assange was. Many pardon petitions have already started, and so have fundraising activities. So, what is the rationale for these diametrically opposite perceptions and interpretations? Who is right – the government or the people? Does not a whistleblower like Snowden deserve a special and a fair hearing? Why does it always happen that the whistleblowers themselves become the target of ridicule by the very people in whose interest they made certain revelations?

The answers to all these questions lie with the governments across the world. A public and tightly defined whistleblowers policy, especially for the online world, needs to be zeroed on. People like Snowden and Assange should have legitimate outlets for exposing fraudulent activities by the people and organisations in power; with no fear of being hounded for life by the government, with a sense of security for their personal lives, with no fear of losing out on a career, and with no fear of living safely in their home country. Can the governments across the world promise this? Can the next Snowden dare to come out in the open? The answer is an emphatic ‘yes’ because a Snowden came out inspite of seeing the plight of an Assange. But, equally sad is the fact that only a few will stick their neck out as most will just get cowed down by the system and the societal pressures. Sad indeed!

(Shobhika Puri is a freelance writer)