Is a technology whistleblower a hero or a villain?
The question comes up more frequency after former National Security Agency consultant Edward Snowden walked away from the NSA with copies of sensitive documents and slides showing the unheard of capabilities of the American electronic spy agencies (and some of its allied partners, including Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC).
Some whistleblowers have an honoured place in the world, particularly if they expose wrong-doing by police departments or businesses – think of New York police officer Frank Serpico, who testified against fellow corrupt cops in the 1970s. Those who expose spy secrets are in a murky area – like Snowden.
Is he to be praised for letting the public know that apparently some of the NSA’s capabilities border on the illegal – enough for President Barak Obama to say some things should be looked into – or damned for giving away secrets.
And if he’s praised, what message does that send to the staff in your organization, especially in an era when many employees have access to sensitive information? How far can an organization restrict data access to cut down on leaks without impeding the business?
Security blogger Graham Cluley has examined ways organizations can find a balance between restricting access to sensitive information and concludes that at the very least they need to control what can be saved, printed or copied onto portable storage (USB sticks and CDs).
Proper audit and document tracking solutions won’t stop a leak, but it will diminish the odds of it happening.
One more piece of advice: If your organization is engaging in data collection techniques that likely won’t be admired by the public — like snaring device data that could be used to identify users — don’t worry about the whistleblower. Worry about the public relations disaster and act accordingly.