“A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.” — Albert Camus.
First used formally in the 1950s, the term “whistle-blower” denotes an individual who publicly exposes some unsavory practice on the part of their employer. While the origin of the word is not entirely clear, it likely derives from the metaphor of a referee, police officer, or other such mediator blowing on the whistle to signal that an illegal act has taken place.
An expanded definition also recognizes “external whistle-blowers”, such as media agencies and watchdog groups, who seek to expose illegal activities in other organizations. Here, in this essay, we will be discussing deeper, whether the practice of whistleblowing, especially the act of leaking government secrets and conspiracies is ethical or not.
The case of WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden is ideal to explore this dilemma.
Although the social contribution of whistleblowing is gigantic, whistle-blowers are often portrayed as disloyal or self-serving bounty hunters. However, whistle-blowers frequently put themselves at great risk, and their situation is rendered more perilous by the failings of the legal system in most counties. We would argue that the woeful state of legal affairs may be due in part to a lack of consensus on the parameters of legitimate whistleblowing.
How does one determine the cost whistle-blowing bears when the act endangers the lives of those involved?
Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton called the massive leak of diplomatic cables an attack on U.S. foreign policy interests and the international community (NPR- TALK SHOW, November 30, 20101:00 PM ET).
WikiLeaks calls its public disclosure whistle-blowing and argues that the public has a right to know what its government is doing. WikiLeaks was criticized by the Pentagon for its handling of the U.S. embassy cables, as details of informers, activists, and opposition politicians in autocratic regimes were not redacted before the documents were made available on file-sharing sites. Many have argued and called Snowden a traitor and have forced him into hiding due to the legal charges brought against him.
One might think they each have a moral duty to expose any serious misconduct, dishonesty, or illegal activity discovered by them in an organization, especially when such conduct directly threatens the public interest. However, increasingly one can see whistle-blowers punished more harshly than the alleged perpetrators of various crimes and wrongdoings. The wrongdoers often seem to get off scot-free.
Given the possibility of harsh retaliation, how should we understand our moral duty to tell the truth and reveal wrongdoing? Should we think of whistle-blowers as selfless martyrs, as traitors, or as something else?
De George specifies three positions regarding whistleblowing-
i) whistleblowing as morally prohibited
ii) as morally permitted
iii) as morally required.
Whistleblowing, although an ethically and morally worthy act undertaken by morally ambiguous agents, has to be considered and understood in a contextual framework. An ethically intricate deed, whistleblowing, is a complex mesh of employees’ acceptance of obligation, honesty, loyalty, and dutifulness. Consequently, the whistle-blowers are usually described as being daring and heroic figures, though the decision to involve in whistleblowing is not purely based on moral virtues, as it is an act that honors one set of moral obligations at the expense of others.
The decision of whistleblowing against wrongdoings is often justifiable on the basis of the larger public interest, does not make it any less morally ambiguous from the whistle-blower’s perspective (Swiatek-Barylska, 2013) .
This brings one back to the concept of Utilitarianism- does the greater good or larger public interest, as compared to the actions of the institution the whistle-blower is reporting against, make it a viable deed?
One could judge this on the basis of the magnitude of the problem or crime being reported by the whistle-blower. The number of lives endangered during these revelations must be gravely considered and not dismissed as “collateral damage” in the wake of the lives being saved due to the same.
Coming back to the case of WikiLeaks where Presidential candidate, Hilary Clinton’s emails were leaked right before the elections hence massively influencing them, one can beg to question whether leaking of private emails of government officials is undemocratic and unethical? How does one ensure the authenticity of such documents?
The first thing to be noted about the email leak is that it was not leaked from the official state government email chain, the leak actually targeted the private email server set up by H. Clinton and her staff. The leak revealed various conversations between the staff members of her campaign and a few of the emails contained private comments made by those managers and lawyers questioning Hillary Clinton’s decision-making skills and instincts.
WikiLeaks did not identify the source of the emails, nor did it say where it got a trove of alleged emails from. U.S. officials have blamed Russia for hacking those earlier emails in an attempt to meddle in the U.S. election. A senator said he will “not discuss any issue that has become public solely on the basis of WikiLeaks,” because, “As our intelligence agencies have said, these leaks are an effort by a foreign government to interfere with our electoral process, and I will not indulge in it.”
However, the leak highlighted one very important event that too points towards “cheating” before a presidential debate or town hall meeting when Brazile, who worked as a CNN commentator in addition to holding a position at the DNC, had her emails revealed as part of the leak. In an email with the subject “From time to time I get the questions in advance”, Brazile shared a question about the death penalty ahead of a CNN town hall event. The question was very similar to what was asked to HRC the next day during the conference hence proving to the public that all these events are rather staged after all.
When Is it Ethical to Publish Stolen Data? How do news agencies and papers ensure they protect their informants and sources? Do they owe it to them to maintain their anonymity even from the Government?
The discussion on Wikileaks and other whistle-blower cases brings one to the debate or dilemma of the role of media and news agencies in shedding light over stolen data with dicey credibility.
From the Pentagon Papers to Hollywood e-mails, reporters and editors face complex decisions when it comes to reporting on information from hackers and leakers. Although one could point out the fact that if publishing this leaked data does not influence a political party by defaming the other, such leaks are often suppressed by people with power whom these reports stand to incriminate.
This can be noted in the case of the Panama Paper leaks that revealed the involvement of thousands of rich and famous families holding illegal offshore accounts and was closely chased by Indian Express in India but was very conveniently dropped by most media outlets in the country.
So who decides for the media outlets whether a story or a leak is worth chasing or not? Is it safe to assume that the only reason a leak or stolen data is being published is because an equally strong or influential party stands to gain from the revelation of this information?
While working on the Snowden leaks, The Guardian went further and established a secure room, into which reporters were not allowed to bring phones or other electronic equipment in case they were bugged. (Nieman Reports, 2015) When dealing with documents obtained under murky circumstances, news organizations should follow standard procedure and question the motives of their sources. “For me, it always comes down to a balance between the value of the information to the public interest as compared to the harm that would be caused to the individual by publication.” (Jane E. Kirtley, the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota)
Snowden’s case an Act of Espionage or an Act of Altruism?
Mr. Snowden is currently charged in a criminal complaint with two violations of the Espionage Act involving unauthorized communication of classified information, and a charge of theft of government property. (EDITORIAL BOARD, 2014)
While media outlets and the public are in favor of Edward Snowden’s act and claim that he has provided a service to the people of the country in exchange for his own immunity and safety. Mr. Snowden told The Washington Post earlier that he did report his misgivings to two superiors at the agency, showing them the volume of data collected by the N.S.A., and that they took no action (The N.S.A. says there is no evidence of this)
Focusing on Snowden is a distraction from the government’s law-breaking massive domestic surveillance program. Criminally prosecuting Snowden has little to do with Snowden’s alleged crimes and everything to do with making an example of him and sending the most chilling of messages to anyone even thinking about exposing government wrongdoing, especially criminality. There is no such crime as “leaking.”
Snowden may have violated a secrecy agreement, which is not a loyalty oath but a contract, and a less important one than the social contract a democracy has with its citizenry. (Raddock, 2013)
In conclusion, one could note that though the act of whistle-blowing and leaking information in itself is ethical, it could have grave repercussions depending on the intention of the said informant or whistle-blower.
The anonymity and protection given to each whistle-blower could encourage the practice of disinformation or blackmail for personal gain. In the cases of Snowden and Wikileaks, one could be assured that the information was leaked for an altruistic purpose, contrary to the claims that the Hilton leaks were well-timed and a Russian conspiracy.
The government’s role here is in using mass surveillance of the population, breach of privacy, and data mining as a means to generate mass consensus and hacking democracy.
One could compare the two and argue that the leaking of private documents of government officials is but a tiny drop in the vast ocean of breach of fundamental rights committed at the hands of the government.
If documents are leaked to trusted sources and the names of those whose lives could be endangered because of the leaks are redacted carefully, the act of whistleblowing does not seem to have any unethical implications.
To assess the criteria to establish the relevance and importance of whistleblowing of a particular case, one could refer to the manual presented by Mr Robert De George in his essay on “Whistle-Blowing” the same can be found in his book Titled Business Ethics.
The Panama Papers documents, combined with one year of reporting, revealed how 140 politicians, as well as celebrities, drug dealers, alleged arms traffickers, and the global elite, obscured their wealth (legally and illegally) and questionable business deals through hard-to-trace companies and tax havens.
Books- Democracy Hacked- Michael Moore
Business Ethics — Mr Robert De George