Whistleblowers against the Surveillance State – (II)


Smári McCarthy is another activist who is moving away from the legal protection route. For three years he, and others in his native Iceland, worked to create a model legal environment for leakers, whistleblowers and journalists. They were making good headway until April 2013 when a rightwing coalition government came to power and stalled reform.

Now he is focusing more on technology. There are two laws, he says, that governments have to obey: physics and economics. He plans to use the former to make mass surveillance – whereby intelligence services gather everybody’s private internet and phone communication – too expensive to do.

He has calculated that the total budget of the Five Eyes – that is the communications snooping services of the US, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand combined – is $120 billion a year. With that they can scoop up the data of 2.5 billion internet users, making the cost per person per day a mere 13 cents.

‘My five-year plan is to increase that cost to $10,000 per person per day. The services would have to be a lot more selective and do their job properly.’

How to do it? Encryption – the types that hackers have developed and which the NSA has still, as far as we know, not managed to crack. ‘I use encryption a lot,’ says McCarthy. ‘But we need to make it easier to use and available to everyone.’

This will help disclosers too, he says, because if everybody’s privacy is improved then so is that of whistleblowers. Naturally, their leaks need to be accurate, need to pass the ‘public interest’ test and not gratuitously violate personal privacy.

Snowden and others have revealed the extent to which free speech and civil liberties are being violated by the state, and not just in countries like Russia or China.

More and more information is being classified as top secret and we have no way of debating whether or not it should be. The recent Stasi-style destruction of laptops at The Guardian newspaper, under the supervision of Britain’s GCHQ, should serve as a warning. As they say, democracy dies behind closed doors – and now too in smashed hard-drives in newspaper offices.

Those genuinely engaged in disclosing in the public interest need protection all along the communication line – from sources and whistleblowers, through campaigners and journalists, to print or web publishers and distributors. In 2011, under a social-democrat government, Iceland followed Council of Europe recommendations and made it illegal for journalists to expose their sources. In Britain a journalist can be jailed for not doing so. It is even worse in the US: Barrett Brown, a young freelancer, is facing 105 years in prison in connection with the posting of information that hackers obtained from Statfor, a private intelligence company with close ties to the federal government.

A Better World

At its heart, whistleblowing is about the desire for truth to be known, for things to be done properly, and for the world to be made a better place.

A place where big business does not cheat or harm citizens for profit; where hospitals and care homes look after frail and elderly people and banks do not rob their customers. Where politicians see office as public service rather than self-service, priests respect the bodily integrity of children in their charge and military personnel do not go on shooting sprees for the hell of it.

Sometimes exposure yields tangible results and the information revealed improves or even saves lives. In 1994, US paralegal Merrell Williams leaked internal memos from Brown & Williamson Tobacco company that showed that the company knew it was lying when it claimed that cigarettes were not harmful, that nicotine was not addictive and that it did not market to children.

His action fuelled lawsuits that resulted in an industry pay-out of billions of dollars to pay smokers’ medical bills.

Whistleblowers act as the guardians of morality, but too often they are solitary martyrs to democracy. As Wikileaks revealed towards the end of last year, the world is currently facing a major multilateral threat to democracy. It is coming not from religious fanatics in turbans but from fundamentalists in suits.

The acronyms TTP and TTIP are enough to lead even the most committed insomniac to the land of nod. But stay awake, please! This is important. These are US-led international trade deals being negotiated – in conditions of unprecedented secrecy – that will give corporations the power to trump national sovereignty and the interests of billions of people. Two secret drafts of the TransPacific Partnership (TPP), obtained by Wikileaks, on intellectual property and the environment show the deals would trample over individual rights and free expression and give powerful companies the right to challenge domestic laws regulating, for example, resource extraction in Peru or Australia. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – between the US and the EU – would have a similar impact, making existing national public services such as health and education even more vulnerable to aggressive action by big private corporations from outside. Those trying to save Britain’s National Health Service from the clutches of private US medical companies know how bad this could be.

Such trade agreements are made at a high level, hatched between a nexus of powerful corporations, governments that do their bidding and secret services that we now know (again, thanks to Snowden) really do use public money to spy on behalf of big business.

The only thing that will counteract the undemocratic and self-serving power of this nexus is a growing network from below that involves whistleblowers, civil society activists and hactivists, journalists and citizens who care.

Only if we have access to information do we have democracy – and today the most relevant information often comes from whistleblowers.

Only if we can participate, is that democracy real – which is why we need to use the information to take action and stop sleepwalking into totalitarianism, be it that of a corrupt institution or a world order devised by and for a global, corporate élite.

Then the tremendous risks that whistleblowers take, and the sacrifices they make, will not be in vain.


-by arrangement with the New Internationalist magazine