The Ethics of Whistle Blowing

By on June 24th, 2013 in Ethics, Topics

SSIT actually has an award for whistle blowers: The Carl Baraus Award. This recognizes Outstanding Service in the Public Interest, which often takes the form of whistle blowing.  There are other actions that can qualify, so this is not a specific limitation.  But it does acknowledge that running counter to corporate or institutional interests and policies requires some unique courage.  When this is driven by ethical concerns and the public interest it warrants kudos.

Finding the balance between interests is non-trivial.  Corporate cheating on tax forms is not in the same league as methodical, knowing, misrepresentation of fatal health impacts of products or activities; although I suspect governments allocate more resources to the former than the later — resources disproportionate to the level of occurrence.  There is limited support for government agencies that interfere with profitable businesses, at least until the public outcry gets loud enough.  Paths for building political support from corruption to “Citizens United” empowered contributions can lean the scales strongly in one direction.

The balance is more difficult when the players are a government and an insider who feels the need to reveal secret information.  Time Magazine did their cover issue on this question this week.  There is a difference, IMHO, between a real spy — someone who is working for the “other guys”, and as a result is misrepresenting his loyalties and a “leaker”.  Presumably the leaker is still loyal to the country involved, but has, as a matter of personal judgement, decided to break his or her oath of secrecy to reveal information deemed “critical to the public interest” or “a gross violation of national security” depending on whose viewpoint you take.  It is quite possible in some of these cases that the leaks will result in deaths.  The names of foreign agents can get them killed. Exposing aspects of the “security theater” that is used to dissuade terrorists can give them loopholes for admission.  While it should be little surprise to most terrorists that organizations like NSA are monitoring their activities (among millions of others) … one might take a bit of time before suggesting how they can circumvent the mechanisms.

I suspect there might even be a “code of ethics” applicable for leakers.  For example, taking care to not release information that will identify individuals and put their lives in danger.  No doubt some readers may be concerned about individuals making this judgement as opposed to the appropriate authorities, but recall, the individuals involved have already made a judgement contrary to the appropriate authorities, so this calls on them to make a more informed set of decisions.

Are there  other elements that might belong in a “Leakers code of ethics”?