What whistleblowers want

Whis­tleblowers want the sun and the moon — or at least they want to get their inform­a­tion out there, they want to make a dif­fer­ence, they want a fair hear­ing, and they don’t want to pay too high a per­sonal price for doing so.

Is that too much to ask? The decision to expose crimin­al­ity and bad prac­tice for the pub­lic good has ser­i­ous, life-changing implications.

By going pub­lic about ser­i­ous con­cerns they have about their work­place, they are jeop­ard­ising their whole way of life: not just their pro­fes­sional repu­ta­tion and career, but all that goes with it, such as the abil­ity to pay the mort­gage, their social circle, their fam­ily life, their rela­tion­ship…  Plus, the whis­tleblower can poten­tially risk prison or worse.

So, with these risks in mind, they are cer­tainly look­ing for an avenue to blow the whistle that will offer a degree of pro­tec­tion and allow them to retain a degree of con­trol over their own lives.  In the old days, this meant try­ing to identify an hon­our­able, cam­paign­ing journ­al­ist and a media organ­isa­tion that had the clout to pro­tect its source.  While not impossible, that could cer­tainly be dif­fi­cult, and becomes increas­ingly so in this era of endemic elec­tronic surveillance.

Today the other option is the secure, high-tech pub­lish­ing con­duit, as trail-blazed by Wikileaks. While this does not provide the poten­tial bene­fits of work­ing with a cam­paign­ing journ­al­ist, it does provide anonym­ity and a cer­tain degree of con­trol to the mod­ern whis­tleblower, plus it allows their inform­a­tion to reach a wide audi­ence without either being filtered by the media or blocked by gov­ern­ment or cor­por­ate injunctions.

As someone who has a nod­ding acquaint­ance with the reper­cus­sions of blow­ing the whistle on a secret gov­ern­ment agency, I have liked the Wikileaks model since I first stumbled across it in 2009.

As with most truly revolu­tion­ary ideas, once pos­ited it is blind­ingly obvious.

Never before has this been tech­nic­ally pos­sible — the idea that a whistleblower’s inform­a­tion could be made freely avail­able to the cit­izens of the world, in order to inform their demo­cratic choices, with no block­age, not cen­sor­ship, no fil­ter­ing or “inter­pret­a­tion” by the cor­por­ate media.

This is par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant in an age when the global media has been con­sol­id­ated in the hands of a few mul­tina­tion­als, and when these mul­tina­tion­als have a cer­tain, shall we say “cosy”, rela­tion­ship with many of top our politi­cians and power elites.

The con­trol of the main­stream media by the spooks and gov­ern­ments has been the focus of many of my recent talks.  These cor­rupt inter-relationships have also been recently laid bare with the News Inter­na­tional phone-hacking scandals.

The days of gar­ner­ing news from one favoured paper or TV bul­letin are long gone. Few people now trust just one media out­let — they skip across a vari­ety of news sources, try­ing to eval­u­ate the truth for them­selves. But even that can be prob­lem­atic when some­thing big occurs, such as the “jus­ti­fic­a­tion” for the inva­sion of Iraq or Libya, and the cur­rent beat of war drums against Iran, when the cor­por­ate media mys­ter­i­ously achieves a consensus.

Hence the demo­cratic dis­con­nect, hence the dis­trust, and hence (in part) the plum­met­ing profits of the old media.

Wikileaks is based on a simple concept -  it allows the people to read the source mater­ial for them­selves and make up their own minds based on real inform­a­tion.  This led to expos­ure of all kinds of global nas­ties way before the massive 2010 US data-dump.

Des­pite this approach, the impact was ini­tially sub­dued until Wikileaks col­lab­or­ated with the old media.  This, as we all know, did indeed pro­duce the cov­er­age and aware­ness of those issues deemed import­ant as it was filtered through the MSM. This has also inev­it­ably lead to ten­sions between the new model hackt­iv­ists and the old-school journalists.

No gov­ern­ment, least of all the USA, likes to have demands for justice and trans­par­ency forced upon it, and the push back since 2010 has been massive across the world in terms of an appar­ently illegal fin­an­cial block­ade, opaque legal cases and a media back­lash. Cer­tain of Wikileaks’s erstwhile media part­ners have col­lab­or­ated in this, turn­ing on one of their richest sources of inform­a­tion in history.

How­ever, Wikileaks is more than a media source.  It is a whole new model — a high-tech pub­lisher that offers a safe con­duit for whis­tleblowers to cache and pub­li­cise their inform­a­tion without imme­di­ately hav­ing to over­turn (and in some cases risk) their lives.

For this work, Wikileaks has over the years won a num­ber of inter­na­tion­ally pres­ti­gi­ous journ­al­ism awards.

Inev­it­ably, crit­ics in the main­stream media seem to want to have their cake and eat it too: one early part­ner, the New York Times, has writ­ten that it doesn’t recog­nise Wikileaks as a journ­al­ist organ­isa­tion or a pub­lisher — it is a source, pure and simple.

Either way, by say­ing this the media are surely shoot­ing them­selves in the cor­por­ate feet with both bar­rels. If Wikileaks is indeed “just” a source (the NYT seems to be blithely for­get­ting that good journ­al­ism is entirely depend­ent on its sources), then the media are break­ing their prime dir­ect­ive: pro­tect a source at all costs.

How­ever, if Wikileaks is a journ­al­ism or pub­lish­ing organ­isa­tion and as such is being tar­geted by the US gov­ern­ment, then all other media are surely equally at risk in the future?

By not stand­ing up for Wikileaks in either capa­city, it appears that the old media have a death wish.

Over the years whis­tleblowers around the world have demon­strated their trust in Wikileaks, as it was set up by someone emer­ging from the ori­ginal bona fide hacker com­munity.   And rightly so — let’s not for­get that no source has been exposed through the fail­ure of the organisation’s technology.

Many media organ­isa­tions rushed to emu­late its suc­cess by try­ing to set up their own “secure” whis­tleblow­ing repos­it­or­ies.  What the media execs failed to under­stand was the hacker ethos, the open source men­tal­ity: they went to their techie depart­ment or com­mer­cial IT ser­vice pro­viders and said “we want one”, but failed to under­stand both the ethos and the secur­ity con­cerns around closed, pro­pri­et­ary soft­ware sys­tems, often chan­nelled through the post–Pat­riot Act, post–CISPA USA.

Other, appar­ently well-meaning organ­isa­tions, also tried to emu­late the Wikileaks model, but most have died a quiet death over the last year.  Per­haps, again, for want of real trust in their ori­gin or tech security?

Why on earth would any security-conscious whis­tleblower, emer­ging out of a gov­ern­ment, mil­it­ary or intel­li­gence organ­isa­tion, trust such a set-up?  If someone comes out of such an envir­on­ment they will know all-too-well the scale of the push-back, the pos­sible entrap­ments, and the state-level resources that will be used to track them down. They either need an über-secure whis­tleblow­ing plat­form, or they need journ­al­ists and law­yers with fire in their belly to fight the fight, no mat­ter what.

So now to Open­Leaks — appar­ently the brainchild of Wikileaks defector Daniel Domsheit-Berg. He and the shad­owy “Archi­tect” fam­ously fell out with Julian Assange in late 2010, just when the polit­ical heat was ramp­ing up on the organ­isa­tion.  They left, reportedly tak­ing some of the cru­cial cod­ing and a tranche of files with them, and Domsheit-Berg decided to set up a rival organ­isa­tion called Open­Leaks.  As a res­ult of his actions, Domsheit-Berg was uniquely cast out of the inter­na­tional hacker group, the CCC in Berlin.

He now seems to have been wel­comed back into the fold and Open­Leaks appears, finally, to be ready to receive whis­tleblower information.

How­ever, there is a cru­cial dif­fer­ence between the two organ­isa­tions.  Where Wikileaks wants to lay the inform­a­tion out there for pub­lic eval­u­ation, Open­Leaks will merely act as a repos­it­ory for cer­tain approved main­stream media organ­isa­tions to access. We are back to the ori­ginal block­age of the cor­por­ate media decid­ing what inform­a­tion we, the people, should be allowed to ingest.

I would not wish to com­ment on Domsheit-Berg’s motiv­a­tion, but to me this seems to be an even worse option for a whis­tleblower than dir­ectly con­tact­ing a cam­paign­ing journ­al­ist with a proven track record of cov­er­ing hard-core stor­ies and fight­ing for the cause.

With Open­Leaks, the whis­tleblower loses not only the auto­matic wide­spread dis­sem­in­a­tion of their inform­a­tion, but also any semb­lance of con­trol over which journ­al­ists will be work­ing on their story.  Their inform­a­tion will be parked on the web­site and any­one from pre-selected media organ­isa­tions will be able to access, use and poten­tially abuse it.

One could say that Open­Leaks oper­ates as a secure sta­ging plat­form where a whis­tleblower can safely store sens­it­ive doc­u­ments and inform­a­tion.… but the founder allegedly removed and des­troyed sens­it­ive files from Wikileaks when he jumped ship in 2010.  Could any whis­tleblower really trust that Open­Leaks would not sim­il­arly “dis­ap­pear” shit-hot inform­a­tion in the future?

Plus, there is the added worry for any rightly-paranoid whis­tleblower that the founder of Open­Leaks so eas­ily aban­doned Wikileaks when under pres­sure.  Who’s to say that this would not hap­pen again, if the full might of the Pentagon were brought to bear on OpenLeaks?

Open­Leaks offers neither the per­sonal sup­port of work­ing with a trus­ted journ­al­ist and a media organ­isa­tion with the clout to fight back, nor does it provide full dis­clos­ure to the wider pub­lic to side-step poten­tial media self-censorship and gov­ern­ment law suits, as the ori­ginal Wikileaks model does.

As such Open­Leaks seems, at least to this par­tic­u­lar whis­tleblower, to be an evol­u­tion­ary blip — a ret­ro­grade step — in the quest for justice and accountability.

The Lindmo Show, Norway

Fol­low­ing on from my talk at the Nor­we­gian SKUP invest­ig­at­ive journ­al­ism con­fer­ence in March, I was invited onto the Anne Lindmo Show in Nor­way on 4 May.

Anne is one of the most fam­ous and respec­ted journ­al­ists in Nor­way, and her chat show is extremely pop­u­lar on prime time NRK TV on Fri­day nights.  We had a lively ses­sion dis­cuss­ing the world of spy­ing, what it was like to blow the whistle and go on the run, and the per­sonal price that has to be paid.

Here’s the link to the whole show, and here’s my seg­ment:

Lindmo inter­view on Nor­we­gian TV from Annie Machon on Vimeo.