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Whistleblowing Ethics: Is Whistleblowing Ethical?

Most people have heard the term “whistleblower.” It refers to a person who brings attention to illegal or unethical activity within their company or government. Like a referee who notices a foul in a game, they “blow the whistle.” There are many systems in place in the United States that protect whistleblowers, but is whistleblowing even ethical?

The history of whistleblowing

Whistleblowing is not a new concept. An early form of it existed in England before there was an organized national police force. If someone saw an illegal act, they were encouraged to report it. If it resulted in a conviction, the reporter would get a reward. This type of citizen-driven crime-fighting continued in America. In 1863, during the Civil War, the False Claims Acts encouraged private citizens to bring lawsuits against anyone conducting fraud against the government. As an incentive, the whistleblower would be given a percentage of what the government recovered.

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What if the government is the one responsible for a crime? The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 protects federal whistleblowers who want to report on activities like a violation of laws, mismanagement, the waste of funds, or an abuse of authority. Federal agencies violate the act if they try to retaliate against the whistleblower. There are many other laws (the Clean Air Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, etc) that include whistleblower protections.

What do whistleblowers report on?

Whistleblowers can draw attention to any kind of illegal activity within an organization. The most common ones include fraud and violations of laws involving taxes, the environment, and securities. This can include illegally dumping toxic waste, selling faulty equipment to the military, and committing accounting fraud. Whistleblowers can also report on discrimination and human rights abuses they’ve seen in their organization.

Examples of well-known whistleblowers

Most whistleblowers are not widely-known. However, when the whistleblower is reporting on a large-scale violation, they can become famous and even mythological. For years, the identity of “Deep Throat” was a mystery. This mysterious figure supplied journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with information that unraveled the Watergate Scandal. Three decades after Nixon resigned, it was confirmed that Deep Throat was Mark Felt, a special FBI agent.

While with the United States military, Sargeant Joseph Darby was given pictures of soldiers torturing Abu Ghraib prisoners in 2004. He reported it to his superiors and for some time, lived in fear of retaliation. 17 soldiers and officers were removed from duty. Many of them were charged, court-martialed, and sentenced to military prison. Darby gained recognition as the whistleblower following an interview with Anderson Cooper. He was awarded a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2005.

Edward Snowden, who worked with the NSA, began questioning the ethics of what was going on within the agency. In 2013, he left his job in Hawaii and flew to Hong Kong. From there, he sent thousands of classified NSA documents to journalists, revealing that the NSA was spying on citizens. In Snowden’s case, he broke the law. Reality Winner did the same when she leaked an intelligence report about Russia interfering in the 2016 election. In 2017, she was arrested and sentenced to prison.

While the laws that Snowden and Winner broke were not specifically about whistleblowing, it demonstrates how risky the action can be. This raises a question about ethics. Is whistleblowing inherently ethical or is there a line that needs to be drawn? Is it ethical to break laws in pursuit of a greater good?

The ethics of whistleblowing

Most people would agree that calling out illegal and unethical activity is necessary for our society. If governments and corporations were allowed to engage in whatever activity they wanted, punishing those who tried to stop objectionable actions, we would be living in an unjust and immoral society. In that sense, whistleblowing is – at its core – ethical. It becomes tricky when laws are broken in the process of whistleblowing. We’re forced to weigh the importance of one law against another. This means asking questions like, “Who is helped by the whistleblowing? Who is harmed?”

Overall, it appears that allowing and protecting whistleblowing are essential for a just society. While many might question rewarding whistleblowers through the False Claims Act, it isn’t an activity that people take on without a lot of consideration. It’s still a risky endeavor, even with protections. Offering incentives is the best way to ensure that people take the risk.

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Whistleblowing: not for the faint-hearted

Most of the time, it would be in the whistleblower’s best interest (at least in the short-term) to stay silent. Even with legal protections, they can experience retaliation and ostracization. With high-profile cases like Edward Snowden and Reality Winner, the costs are even higher. However, people who call out illegal and unethical activities are brave enough to take the risk. They’re driven by a personal sense of right and wrong. They believe that not speaking out can harm others. Being willing to go through that and face any potential consequences for the greater good is an ethical action.