How whistleblowing on surveillance can reform the system

Screen shot of data

The Edward Snowden case is not the first in which the exposure of surveillance activities by the United States government led to a public debate about questions of security and privacy.

In 1970, former US Army intelligence officers Christopher Pyle and Ralph Stein disclosed how the army was investigating the political activities of American citizens – activities protected by the Constitution. Through this massive domestic surveillance programme, dossiers were assembled on millions of people and thousands of organisations.

This surveillance and data collection led to hearings before a congressional panel chaired by Senator Sam Ervin, a well-known figure who would go on to lead the Senate’s investigation of the Watergate scandal. Ervin chastised the army for its surveillance and the construction of the databank. The army proposed to change its procedures, but subsequent disclosures by Pyle challenged whether the practices had actually changed.

In an effort to end the practice, Ervin sponsored the Federal Privacy Act, which prohibited the collection of information on a person’s exercise of free speech rights. The official report on the passage of the new law specifically referred to the disclosures by Pyle and Stein, saying that Ervin’s investigation into military surveillance over American political dissidents “revealed yet another dimension of abuses during the late 1960s involving intelligence gathering activities that violated privacy rights”.

The disclosures by Pyle and Stein also helped build momentum that led to the passage of the Whistleblower Protection Act in 1989, which extended legal protections to federal employees who expose government misconduct.

Last year, President Barack Obama extended some protections to those working in the intelligence field who report waste, fraud and abuse. It remains to be seen whether the political debates now under way will lead to additional protections for those who release sensitive information to the public.

Carousel image: Creative commons, Flickr / Kjetil Korslien

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