Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Great Canadian Sieve Project


An article by University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran and retired diplomat Gar Pardy that appeared last November is, in the light of current events, worth a second look. The two co-authors make the case that Richard Colvin, far from being a whistleblower or some kind of dissident, was simply doing his job, and to the highest standards of his profession. He performed admirably, in the face of considerable mudslinging and intimidation by the Harper government. And he had the protection of the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, having gone through proper channels every step of the way. Yet few would envy him, and fewer would wish to undergo anything similar.

When information whose disclosure is clearly in the interests of the public is being concealed, conscientious citizens in the employ of government find themselves in a tough spot. The procedures to be followed under the PSDPA can take time, and there is no guarantee of a positive outcome at the end of them. Provision is made in the Act for direct disclosure to the public, but this is discouraged, and in any case the grounds upon which a public servant may pass on information to others are anything but clear. And where there is unclarity, there is an understandable reluctance to take risks.

Even forwarding a widely-accessible document to his own union led to the firing of a scientist at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in 2008, for example. This sort of thing has an obvious chilling effect, even more so under a government that is as addicted to secrecy and
so frequently arrogant and arbitrary in its exercise of power as this one. Citizens with a conscience and information of vital interest to the public have very little option but to find means other than official ones to pass that information on--in other words, they must leak it.

There are always potential allies in such cases. Journalists--and bloggers--dislike official secrecy. For those of us actually interested in publishing hard news rather than op-edish pieces (or one with a suitable admixture of the other), leaks are an essential nutrient. The following, then, is aimed at those in the know who, for various reasons, are unable to provide key information on matters of public interest through the "proper" channels. It's a primer on how to leak--and, of course, an open invitation.

The goodness of leaks

Leaks are an essential part of the democratic process. They are a form of whistleblowing. Leaks put us, the public, in the picture, and allow us to react accordingly. Such leaks are an act of good citizenship, even a civic duty. Canadians need a flood of them when the public interest is at stake. But for this to happen,
public-spirited would-be leakers need to feel safe and secure.

Leaking--let's be clear--is not without risk: if the leaker is identified, job and career can obviously be affected. But there are proven ways of m
inimizing that risk.

Motive, means and opportunity

Let's take it as read that a leaker's motive is positive civic engagement: nothing less, certainly, is being proposed here. How is the act of leaking performed?

There are a number of enjoyable and risk-free methods available these days.
  • Get a lawyer. This is by far the safest way of leaking sensitive materials. Your lawyer can promulgate the information to the public, and your identity is legally protected by solicitor-client privilege. But for those who may not wish to hire a lawyer, or cannot afford to, there are numerous other ways of getting the word out:
  • A quiet "not for attribution" conversation with a journalist or blogger. If you have heard something interesting that the public ought to know, try contacting a journalist or trustworthy blogger directly. They can be counted upon to maintain strict confidentiality when it comes to sources. There is self-interest involved, as well as ethics: if they "blow a source" they are not likely ever to get another one, and they depend upon sources to do their jobs. So you can approach them with confidence.

    Do not, of course, make contact on the employer's premises. Never use the employer's computer network, or the employer's telephones or fax machines.

    The journalist or blogger might ask you questions. Stay within your comfort zone, but fill in what details you feel you are able to provide. Your story will be discreetly checked out, without implicating you: few journalists or hard-news bloggers will write an unverified story based solely upon one anonymous source. So give them as much of what they need as possible so they can follow up.

    Perhaps the information is so sensitive, or so easily traced back to you, that you would prefer to go "off the record." Journos don't like that as much, because it means that they can't directly use your intel, but if it can lead them to other information that they can use, it may still interest them. If you want to go off the record, you need to declare that at the outset, and get their agreement, before you provide the information.

  • Third-party contacts. For various reasons, you might not want to go directly to a reporter, but to provide your information to an intermediary, such as your union. If you choose this route, make sure that your identity will be kept confidential from the beginning, or else steer clear.

  • Anonymous contact. It is always open to you to send an anonymous letter, or a fax, or to make a phone call. Use a public telephone or fax service. With respect to letters, if the information is highly sensitive, avoid any possibility of detection by: 1) handling paper, envelope and stamps with gloves, right up to the point of mailing; and 2) sealing the envelope with a damp cloth. It is not likely that fingerprint-lifting or DNA recovery would be performed, of course--but these precautions will add considerably to your own peace of mind if the release of the information proves to have a significant public effect.

  • Documents. If you have sensitive documents to provide, make sure, first of all, that enough originals exist in other hands--half a dozen or so--that a leak cannot be traced back to you. Secondly, if you copy the original at the workplace (possibly more feasible than taking the original home), make sure that others have access to the copying machine as well, because those machines can leave "fingerprints." If there are identifying marks that would allow the document to be traced back to you, such as a specific scribbled note on it, use white-out on the copy and copy again.

  • Cyber-leaks. The cyber-world has opened up broad new opportunities for leakage, some of which can get pretty technical. But for the ordinary, not very tech-savvy but decently-motivated citizen, there is data-storage, email, and, of course the Internet.

    --Data-storage. These days cheap memory sticks are the way to go. They plug into a computer, and information can be quickly copied into them. But because nothing is completely untraceable in your work environment, it's as well not to use your own workstation computer if you are copying data. Find one to which several others besides yourself have at least potential access.

    --Email. As noted, DO NOT use your employer's email. Use your own, or, better, use a public Internet outlet. To cover your tracks, you can open a Google, Yahoo! or Hotmail account under an alias, or
    get an anonymous email account that hides your actual email address. These are untraceable back to you, allowing you to send and receive emails with your identity protected.

    --Internet. The simplest way to use the Internet to divulge sensitive information is WikiLeaks. You can put up documents and videos there in complete confidence.
    This site has proven to be the place to publish (and to acquire juicy information).

    There has not been a single exposure of a contributor since WikiLeaks started up. It is, quite simply, impenetrable. Here's the impressive science and security behind it.

    You can use your anonymous email account to post information at various other websites that may not be as secure as WikiLeaks.
Rules for leakage

The main rule is to be honest and ethical. Leaks should not be used to settle scores, or simply for the sake of causing injury to someone, or done for money or the lulz. Leaks should be a contribution to civic life, placing information in the public domain that should be there.

You need to assure yourself that the information you are passing on is true and verifiable. You should protect yourself, but also those to whom you are providing the information. The ultimate beneficiary is the Canadian public, and that end should--must--always be kept in mind.

This has been brought to you as a public service by Dr. Dawg on behalf of the Great Canadian Sieve Project.
Get leaking!

1 comment:

Holly Stick said...

Do you have the slightest evidence that it was a leak?