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How to become a whistleblower

Raising issues is important for good governance.

Bad practice and mismanagement happen often – more often than you’d think. The reason we don’t hear about it more is that many companies, governments, and organizations manage to keep a lid on issues through stringent security and the fear that stepping out of line could lead to consequences for the whistleblower.

Yet some of the most urgent and important issues of our time have been raised by whistleblowers, brave individuals who have mustered up the courage to speak up and talk about the concerns they have in the hope that someone will do something about it. From Edward Snowden uncovering the mass surveillance of millions of internet users through covert backdoors developed into our most popular apps to Chelsea Manning providing secret US documents to Wikileaks, screeds of information we ought to know about have come from whistleblowing.

Both Manning and Snowden have paid dearly for their actions.

The former sits in prison for what they did, while the latter made a prison of his own by fleeing to Russia after he was uncovered in a splashy Guardian interview. However, it doesn’t have to be like that: it’s possible to blow the whistle on poor practice discreetly and anonymously – if you’re careful.

Things to consider

It’s vital to weigh up your options before going down the path of blowing the whistle. Would you be happy – or more realistically, could you live with it – if you were identified as the whistleblower responsible by your organization or bosses?

If the answer is no, it may be more advisable to keep quiet, as the risk of being unmasked remains high.

If it’s something you feel comfortable disclosing to your company, then many countries’ laws provide support and guidance for how to legally become a whistleblower against someone in your organization. It’s worth checking out these rules to make sure you’re doing it by the book.

It’s also advisable to keep a record of all your actions in the process of raising awareness of issues so that you can refer back to it if asked later on by your organization, company, or another investigatory power. 

Turning to the press or regulators?

While the desire to let as many people as possible know about any wrongdoing may be tempting, it can often be inadvisable to report things to the media, because of the potential consequences. If you feel comfortable doing so, and think it will make a difference, you should first report any issues to your company or organization; if you feel that’s not possible, then try and find the relevant regulator for your industry.

At the last resort, approaching the press is an option – albeit the nuclear one. 

If you’re doing that, make sure to protect your back. Try and use a burner email account or phone number, and encrypted messaging systems like Signal or Telegram in order to raise awareness. 

You may – at some point in the process – have to give up your anonymity, especially if what you’re alleging is unlawful. But it’s possible to take precautions in the early stages of the process to prevent your name from getting out there in the public.

Likewise, if your whistleblowing involves collecting data, be aware of the digital traces you may leave: 

  • Don’t do anything out of the ordinary to collect your data, like visiting the office late at night to gather evidence. 
  • Make sure that any documents you generate are stripped of their metadata before you submit them as evidence, otherwise it could easily be traced back to you. 
  • And be aware that printers and scanners log everything that passes through them. 

Take care of how you proceed, and always be aware that you may end up getting embroiled in something you didn’t envisage when you began the process. Whistleblowing is a vital component of our society, and a key way to speak truth to power. But it also involves sacrifices, and those should not be taken lightly.

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