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How to be a tech whistleblower 

By Bill Nettles and Gary Jackson 

As powerful and advanced as tech companies are, they, like other organizations, can be laid low by a particular nemesis: the good old-fashioned whistleblower.   

Indeed, a thoughtful, well-prepared whistleblower – as former Twitter security chief Peiter Zatko seems to be — can do more to focus the public’s attention on problems and wrongdoing than legions of well-intentioned press pundits and politicians.  

The key is preparedness. David may have brought down Goliath with a simple slingshot, but taking on Big Tech, Pharma, Oil, Government etc. requires more.   

 Zatko and his devastating revelations about Twitter are a case in point. According to the former company insider, Twitter mishandled the personal information of its 400 million users, and not only resisted fixing its problems, but actually employed at least one hostile foreign agent.  

You probably know all this because you’ve seen the explosive headlines. Head-spinning press coverage is a big part of a whistleblower’s power. They make real and provable what the rest of us might have only suspected. And this brings the mighty to account.  

But spectacle is a double-edged blade. A whistleblower who enters the arena under-prepared is likely to be sliced, diced and discredited. And when well-meaning but unprepared whistleblowers meet a bad end, society loses.  

“Whistle blowing” has a long and celebrated history with some even making it onto the big screen including Karen Silkwood (nuclear safety), Mark Felt (aka Deep Throat of the Watergate Scandal), and Frank Serpico (corruption in the NY Police Department).  

Given this noble tradition of whistleblowers, our society clearly cannot afford to lose a single one to ill-preparedness. With that in mind, we offer this crash course in how to effectively and decisively blow the whistle: 

  • It is always best to blow the whistle BEFORE you depart your organization. We know that isn’t always possible as many individuals blow the whistle after they are terminated, but it will be easier to retain documents and other evidence if you are still employed. 
  • Ensure that all documents that back up your case are securely stored and maintained. Having access to these documents even after you depart your job will help support your case. 
  • It may seem obvious, but contacting an attorney before you blow the whistle and even before you begin accumulating evidence will help you remain organized and protected against malicious prosecution from your employer. Yes, the organization you’re blowing the whistle on will no doubt have skilled lawyers on the payroll. And those lawyers will likely vigorously defend their client. But the law recognizes the public good of a righteous whistleblower and makes protections available.    

“Sunlight,” said U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “is said to be the best of disinfectants.” How true. Innumerable wise guys have advised, “Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.” Also solid.  

The ultimate aim of whistleblowing isn’t to merely create a tweet storm. Those are easy to come by. The goal is to right a wrong and make that fix stick. 

When lives are at risk, a company or its leadership are out of line, or there is clear fraud at work, whistle blowing is one of the noblest acts an employee can do to serve as a check on the power of their employer. 

Bill Nettles and Gary Jackson are part of the Carolina Whistleblower Attorneys. They have participated in numerous whistleblower (qui tam) cases in federal and state courts. 

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