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Why Tech Needs Whistleblowersby@KaylaEMatthews
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Why Tech Needs Whistleblowers

by Kayla MatthewsJune 14th, 2018
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Whistleblowers have raised the alarm about some of the most significant technology-related concerns in recent memory.

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Whistleblowers have raised the alarm about some of the most significant technology-related concerns in recent memory.

But what benefit do those individuals have on the industry at large and the people who depend on it?

They Illustrate What’s Possible

After revealing what they know, whistleblowers tend to make society at large realize they can’t afford to ignore certain issues.

For example, after the aftermath involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, most people knew Facebook collected their data, but didn’t consider the possibility of third-party companies using that content.

Once the full details came out, though, many people took action by finding out what Facebook knew about them and making their profiles more private.

They Spotlight Questionable Tactics

People commonly refer to the United States as “the land of the free,” but leaked details about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) programs revealed government officials got data from 120 million phone calls Americans made, constituting spying that spanned beyond the United States and happened indiscriminately.

Once people became aware of what happened, some filed lawsuits to hold the NSA and other participating organizations accountable. Without warning from a whistleblower, it’s likely those methods would have continued unchecked.

Whistleblowing is certainly a risky business, especially when dealing with government-level information. Fortunately, there are some laws in place that protect whistleblowers in any industry.

“Whistleblowers are protected from retaliation for engaging in ‘protected conduct,’ which includes filing a whistleblower lawsuit or attempting to stop fraud on the government,” explains Reetuparna Dutta, Partner at Hodgson Russ, a whistleblower defense law firm.

“Whistleblowers are not protected from all adverse employment action,” Dutta notes, “but only that which is in retaliation for conduct relating to ‘outing’ a company for fraud.”

“Of course, companies may target whistleblowers for their activities and be on the lookout for reasons to terminate them,” he says. “It’s important to document all employment actions and be extremely careful once you’re identity as a whistleblower has been revealed.”

They Give Warnings About Inaccurate Statistics

The fast-paced nature and crowded landscape of the tech industry mean young companies are in continual competition with each other to attract attention from potential investors. They often do that with impressive reports filled with data about growth and average monthly usage.

However, whistleblowers have alleged the statistics aren’t always accurate, such as in the case of Snapchat, which has been accused of misrepresenting its metrics.

In that case, the whistleblower says he was fired after revealing what he knew and that Snapchat gave him false references that prevented getting hired at other firms.

Proposed legislation in the European Union seeks to protect IT whistleblowers from that kind of backlash.

When investors get word the statistics they receive might not be valid, it could make them think twice about contributing to companies.

Whistleblowers clearly play instrumental roles in keeping the tech sector in check.

Here are some of the most famous individuals and a brief description of what they did that made them receive international attention.

1. Edward Snowden

This is the individual responsible for shining light on the NSA leaks mentioned above. During his work as an IT subcontractor for the government, Snowden became alarmed at the NSA’s surveillance activities, made copies of classified data and leaked it to The Guardian.

Snowden received a government theft charge and two other charges relating to the 1917 Espionage Act. After getting his U.S. passport revoked, Snowden began the process of seeking asylum in various destinations around the world and is currently in an undisclosed location.

2. Chelsea Manning

Chelsea Manning, who had the birth name Bradley, is a transgender whistleblower who downloaded and classified State Department documents, plus videos of military airstrikes, and provided them to WikiLeaks. Some of the material included sensitive material about the leaders of foreign nations.

Though the information Manning provided was not solely technical, Wikileaks is an online media organization, making Manning’s findings relevant to people interested in tech.

Manning received 22 charges — including one that carries the death penalty. She served seven years of a 35-year sentence and got released from prison in May 2017 after then-president Barack Obama commuted her sentence.

3. Christopher Wylie

This is the man responsible for telling the world about the data privacy scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. The 28-year-old Canadian is a former Cambridge Analytica employee who had his Facebook account suspended after divulging what he knew to The Guardian.

Later, Wylie gave information to the United Kingdom’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee and proceeded to attract attention around the world.

Tech Whistleblowers Face Undeniable Risks

Whistleblowers in the tech sector — as well as those associated with all other industries — invariably cause people to have conflicting opinions about their actions. Are they heroes or merely lawbreakers?

Then, in addition to being in the public eye, they may deal with a loss of employment, court charges and jail time, among other complications due to their decisions to disclose former secrets.

But despite those potential outcomes, they choose to highlight details the tech industry might not know otherwise.

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