The Privacy Rights of Whistleblowers

Posted by Elonnai Hickok at Dec 20, 2010 11:25 AM |
The recent disclosures from Wikileaks have shown that the right to information, whistle-blowing, and privacy are interconnected. This note looks at the different ways in which the three are related, as well as looking at the benefits and drawbacks to Wikileaks in terms of privacy.


In a recent interview, the Canadian Privacy Commissioner was quoted as saying “Information and the manipulation of information is the key to power. Those who can control the information can influence society enormously.” History and present-day society have both proven the truth in this statement. It is one among many reasons that the right to information is important to uphold. In India, and in other countries, there are statutes – in India, the Right To Information Act – that entitles the public to request and receive information that pertains to public bodies and their conduct, information that is publicly available because it is intrinsically related to the public interest.  An entirely separate but equally critical way in which the public is kept informed is through whistle-blowing. Traditionally, whistle-blowing is any disclosure made in the name of public interest.  Recent events such as the Ratan Tata case and the leaks of US diplomatic cables have brought to light the relationship between the public’s right to information, the rights of whistleblowers, and the rights of individuals to privacy. These recent cases have shown that the right to information, whistle-blowing, and the right to privacy are interconnected, because privacy can provide individuals with the means to sustain autonomy against potentially overwhelming forces of government and persons who might have mixed motivations. The right to information and whistle-blowing are means by which the government is held accountable to the public if they violate the law or the public trust. The Wikileaks case and the Ratan Tata case raise important questions about when those two interests need to give way to private interests. One of the key questions that Wikileaks raises is: if  whistleblowing is supposed to be disclosure in the public interest -- i.e., to protect the public – should disclosure of personal information be permissible only if a person can demonstrate that he/she is trying to remedy or avoid actual wrongdoing rather than simply publishing information that is "interesting to the public?"

What is a Whistleblower and how does a Whistleblower Benefit from Wikileaks?

Whistleblowing is the modern counterpart to “informers” – people who reveal others’ wrongdoing. Much whistleblowing occurs by going "up the chain" in a person's own department or agency or company.  If the person is reporting wrongdoing and the person ultimately goes to the authorities about illegal activity, the individual reporting the leak can sometimes get immunity for his or her own actions, can sometimes collect part of the penalties, and can under certain statutes in some countries even bring suit if the company retaliates against him -- for example, by firing him.  In this way traditional whistleblowing places the responsibility for legal and ethical conduct on employees who are better situated to see wrongdoing than outsiders would be. In many countries, a person may present information of a whistleblowing nature to a judicial body. The judicial body then determines the validity of the information, the degree of public interest involved, and the proper form of redress to be taken. The judicial body offers legal protection to the whistleblower.  Another method of whistleblowing is to leak information to the press.  Once information is in the public domain – at least if there is freedom of press -- the information can no longer be covered up. Neither the right to free press, nor the right to protection as a whistleblower is universal. The current critique of the Indian Whistle Blowing Bill is that the right to protection will not be ensured. A Times of India article issued in September 2010  pointed out that the Whistle Blowing Act’s biggest weakness is that the Bill’s Central Vigilance  Commission is designated to play both the role as competent authority to deal with complaints file by whistleblowers and as the tribunal to protect whistleblowers. Structuring the power to allow one body to fulfil both functions runs the risk of bias and could breed distrust that would cause people to avoid the system altogether. The article complained that the Bill has no teeth, and that even if the Commission believes that the whistleblowing is valid, it is able only to give advice rather than actually to prosecute individuals. The article recites extreme instances in which individuals have blown the whistle and paid for it with their lives. For example: in 2005 a manager of the Indian Oil Corporation was killed after exposing a scheme in adulterated petrol, and in 2010 an RTI activist was killed after exposing land scams in Mahrashtra.   In these situations, Wikileaks is an interesting and powerful tool for individuals who either do not want to leak their information to a judicial body or are not protected if they do so in their own country. Leaking information to Wikileaks is in one sense analogous to leaking information to the press, but it is not precisely the same because it is not a news media outlet, but instead is a way for a person to post information on a mass media outlet. It should be noted, however, that informants who leak to Wikileaks are not afforded the same immunity that individuals who leak to authorities are granted. When an individual shares documents or information with Wikileaks, the site in turn acts as a platform to publish the information on the web and with the press.  Being an independent entity that is neither tied down to a certain territory, government, or entity – Wikileaks has the pull of non-bias. But the strength of Wikileaks is also its weakness.  When 250,000 diplomatic cables were posted, there was no one who understood the context of the content to monitor to ensure that everything was appropriate to post.  As a result, the information was transmitted to an audience who normally would not be entitled to it.  By doing so, the leaked information placed individual diplomats in precarious positions that could potentially put them in harm’s way and unnecessarily damage their reputations, as well as putting the reputation of the United States on the line.

Privacy and Whistleblowing

As a result the United States is looking to press charges against Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks,  for espionage.  The way in which Wikileaks leaked information  and the nature of the leak has brought privacy into the picture. When looking at the act of whistleblowing through the lens of privacy, there are obvious privacy concerns for the whistleblower, for the person or entity whose information has been leaked, and for possible third parties involved.  Paul Chadwick, the Victorian Privacy Commissioner, pointed out that for the whistleblower the main privacy concerns include the individual’s identity, safety, and reputation. For the alleged wrongdoer the privacy concerns include: identity, safety, employment, and liberty (where sanctions may include imprisonment). For third parties, reputation and safety can both be jeopardized by disclosures by whistleblowers. The Wikileaks leaks squarely present the question whether intent should be brought into the analysis of privacy and whistleblowers.  If a whistleblower is disclosing with the intent protect the public, the protections afforded to this person should weigh differently against the privacy interests of alleged wrongdoers and third parties than for someone who is simply defining the public interest as “interesting to the public,” or, worse, as seen in the false leak by Pakistan against India, is looking to leak information to disrupt public interest.  Even though Wikileaks works to protect the anonymity of individuals who leak information, it is not bound by any law to protect the privacy of individuals involved in the leak. The concept behind Wikileaks is important. By interacting with government information, it has the ability to bring accountability and transparency to governments, but the only regulation over Wikileaks is internal (and thus inherently subjective).  Wikileaks needs to change its structure to take into account leaks shared without the intent of protecting the public interest and even then needs to monitor to prevent leaks that could place individuals in precarious situations or damage reputations with no validating information.


  •  Chadwick, Paul. Whistleblowing, Transparency, and Privacy: Aspects of the relationship between Victoria’s Whistleblowers Protection Act and the Information Privacy Act.