Whistleblowers: Uncovering the Stories of People Who Changed the Course of History

Thomas A. Drake, Mark Klein, Edward Snowden, Shawn Carpenter, Katharine Gun

‘I always feel like somebody’s watchin’ me

And I have no privacy… Tell me, is it just a dream?’

Ok, those are the lyrics of a famous 1984 Rockwell song. But they sure describe what has been going on in the digital world in the last decade. And sadly, it’s more of a nightmare than a dream.

Whether we like it or not, we live in a constant state of surveillance. In the early days of the internet, we may not have been fully aware of it. But then, brave people started ringing the alarm to tell us that the blissful vision of free and private internet is no longer a reality.

These brave people are digital privacy guardians. Some have given up their freedom in the name of truth. They were living normal lives until one day, everything changed. They made the hard decision to reveal solid proof that someone is, indeed, always watching us.

Despite their sacrifices, constant surveillance and monitoring didn’t stop. But we still owe these people a lot and have many reasons to be grateful for what they did.

Let’s delve into the history of data privacy and surveillance whistleblowers that changed our lives and the way we protect our identities online.

Thomas A. Drake revealed NSA’s expanded surveillance

In the late 1980s, Thomas A. Drake worked as a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA). His job was to test software. After switching lanes and working for other companies as a software consultant, he returned to the NSA. This time around, Drake was a full-time employee within the Signals Intelligence Directorate.

During his first years at the NSA, Drake pondered on Trailblazer Project and ThinThread.

Drake favored ThinThread. However, the NSA chose Trailblazer and canceled ThinThread.

Soon, Drake discovered questionable activities taking place within NSA departments. Some were related to his initial worries about invading people’s privacy.

Drake shared his concerns on illegal monitoring with his bosses and other high-ranking members of intelligence committees. He waited, but his complaints led nowhere. So, he decided to disclose his allegations to the press, cautious not to give away sensitive or classified information.

The Baltimore Sun used Drake as an anonymous source and reported on waste, fraud, abuse at the NSA, plus Trailblazer. And even though Drake relied on encrypted emails, the NSA managed to identify him as the mole.

In 2010, Drake was accused of willful retention of national defense information. Eventually, the charges were dropped, and he pled guilty to a misdemeanor: exceeding authorized use of a computer.

Drake has become an activist against the surveillance state, frequently giving interviews and speaking at events. In 2011, Drake received the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling award. He was also co-recipient of the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence (SAAII) award.

You can find out more about his story from the 2016 documentary about government surveillance and internet privacy, ‘Nothing to Hide.’

Mark Klein told the world about Room 641A

In 2002, Mark Klein was working as a technician for AT&T in San Francisco.

One day, an NSA representative visited to interview AT&T employees for a special job. Soon after, Klein noticed that room 641A in the office building had a strange-looking door with no doorknob. He became intrigued when he discovered he had limited access there.

Then, Klein realized that signals from optical fibers carrying Internet traffic were being split and sent into Room 641A. American citizens’ data was being wiretapped. This was off the record.

Klein learned from other employees that there were similar rooms in other AT&T locations within the US. Once he connected the dots, Klein knew only the NSA could be behind the illegal wiretapping.

Mark was a few years before his retirement, and he didn’t want to lose his job. So, he didn’t mention this to anyone.

In 2005, a New York Times story told the public about the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program. The newspaper explained how telephone communications of “tens of millions of Americans” had been recorded since shortly after September 11, 2001.

This triggered Mark’s decision to reveal what he knew about Room 641A. After all, he was now retired. Klein’s first attempt was to have the Los Angeles Times tell the story. The Director of National Intelligence found out about it, and the newspaper refused to go further and publish Klein’s disclosure. After another failed pursuit to convince a journalist, he sent his statement to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

The EFF included Klein’s revelations in Hepting v. AT&T, a class-action lawsuit against AT&T on behalf of citizens whose privacy was violated.

But in July 2008, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act. A few days later, President George Bush signed the act. The document granted retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies for past violations of FISA.

The case was dismissed, and The Supreme Court eventually decided to close the door on Hepting v. AT&T appeals in 2012.

Based on current assumptions, intelligence agencies still use the AT&T San Francisco office for data collection. But officially, the NSA “can neither confirm nor deny” this.

In 2008, the EFF honored Klein and picked him as a recipient of the Pioneer Awards.

To learn more about his story, make sure to pick up his book, ‘Wiring Up the Big Brother Machine…And Fighting It.’ You’ll read all the details of his discovery and how the NSA cooperated with AT&T to spy on internet traffic.

Edward Snowden let America know it was illegally surveilled

Edward Snowden is probably the best-known whistleblower of our time. In 2013, he revealed the massive scope of the NSA’s surveillance capabilities. While several others before him disclosed similar activities, it was much worse this time. Here is how it all started.

After working for the CIA, Edward Snowden landed an NSA contractor job for Dell. He was assigned to an NSA facility in Tokyo, Japan.

As an expert in cyber counterintelligence, his job was to analyze potential cyberattacks from China. His concerns started when he realized he had to track hospitals, universities, and other civilian infrastructure – targets not included in the intelligence’s mandate.

Snowden was reassigned to Hawaii as lead technologist for the NSA’s information-sharing office. This time, his focus was the electronic monitoring of China and North Korea.

Officially, Snowden worked as a system administrator. But he claims he was rather an infrastructure analyst who had to find new ways to break into internet and telephone traffic around the world.

During his time at the NSA, Snowden found several illegitimate surveillance procedures, like:

      • Accessing data from internet giants like Google, Facebook, and Apple through the Prism program
      • Detecting GCHQ interceptions on foreign politicians’ communications during the 2009 G20 summit in London
      • Snooping into the pornography-viewing habits of political radicals, to use these “personal vulnerabilities” to destroy the reputations of government critics
      • Spying on over 100 high-ranking leaders from Brazil, France, Mexico, Britain, China, Germany, and Spain, among others.

Snowden downloaded and stored a cache of top-secret documents for some time. His last straw was when he uncovered an enormous database capable of holding upwards of a yottabyte of data. It had billions of phone calls, faxes, emails, computer-to-computer data transfers, and text messages from around the world.

In May 2013, he decided to fly to Hong Kong, knowing he might never come back. There, he met with journalists from The Guardian and shared the secret documents. They soon started publishing them.

On June 9th, 2013, Snowden went public and admitted he was the source in a video interview.

Snowden was granted asylum in Russia, where he currently lives.

The US charged Snowden with espionage. If he ever returns on American ground, he faces 30 years in prison.

In April 2014, The Guardian and The Washington Post received the Pulitzer Prize for public service for their roles in reporting on the NSA leak. Snowden saw the award as a vindication of his efforts to bring the secret surveillance programs to light.

In 2020, Amnesty International joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Movement, requesting the US government to drop the charges, as Snowden’s revealed information was solely in the public’s interest.

As Snowden himself mentioned:

It’s a pledge of allegiance, not to the agency, not to a government, not to a president, but to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.

By September 2020, a US court ruled that the surveillance program Snowden disclosed was illegal.

If you want to dig deeper into Snowden’s story, you can read his memoir, ‘Permanent Record,’ or watch the 2016 movie ‘Snowden.’

Shawn Carpenter uncovered how China spied on the US

Shawn Carpenter worked for Sandia National Laboratories, an engineering and science laboratory in the US. His job was to investigate security breaches on company networks. He uncovered several attacks, affecting computer networks at major US defense contractors, military installations, and government agencies, including NASA accessing sensitive information.

Carpenter informed his superiors but was advised not to share this information with anyone else, as the breaches did not involve Sandia computers.

Determined to bring things to light, Carpenter went to the US Army and the FBI to address the problem. That’s when he found out he had managed to crack a Chinese cyber-espionage ring with the code-name Titan Rain.

When Sandia learned about Carpenter’s actions, they fired him and revoked his security clearance.

Just like other whistleblowers, Carpenter shared his story with a newspaper. It was the September 5, 2005, issue of Time.

Two years later, a New Mexico State Court awarded Carpenter $4.7 million in damages from Sandia Corporation for terminating his work contract. The jury concluded that Carpenter’s firing was “malicious, willful, reckless, wanton, fraudulent, or in bad faith.”

Since 2007, Carpenter has been working at NetWitness Corporation, a startup within the United States Department of Homeland Security.

Katharine Gun tried to stop the war on Iraq

Katharine Gun worked as a Mandarin specialist at the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), the UK government’s surveillance center in Cheltenham. She spent her days listening to Chinese intercepts to translate them from Mandarin to English and create reports for various government departments.

One day, her world took a serious overturn.

A work task requested her to help the American government spy on United Nations diplomats as part of a joint intelligence mission between the US and the UK. The idea behind the request was so diplomats could be blackmailed into supporting an invasion of Iraq.

Although Gun agreed to work as a spy, she thought this request was not what she signed up for. And she didn’t want her actions to lead to a war breaking out.

Gun copied the email and sent it to The Observer newspaper, under strict anonymity. After lengthy deliberations inside the newspaper’s editorial team, The Observer decided to publish the story.

After the incident, the GCHQ carried out an internal investigation, questioning all employees. Gun confessed to her manager that she leaked the email. As a result, she was arrested, lost her job, and faced trial under the Official Secrets Act.

Gun was charged after eight months. Civil rights organizations, along with human rights leading counsel, defended her. Despite fearing a hard sentence, she pleaded not guilty, knowing that her decision could have prevented an illegal war.

But the UK’s Crown Prosecution Office dropped the charges before the trial had even started, and Gun was free.

Gun’s story fueled a massive international debate. Many thought George W Bush and Tony Blair’s chances of getting the agreement for a UN mandate for war were now zero. It was Gun’s strong desire, as well.

However, a second UN resolution to authorize war against Iraq never materialized, and airstrikes began on March 19, 2003.

Katharine Gun’s experience was portrayed in a 2019 motion picture, ‘Official Secrets.’

Protect your privacy

These people’s revelations, along with many others, led to changes in American laws and standards. It also made technology companies change their security practices.

But, most of all, surveillance disclosures opened our eyes and made us look at government and state institutions from a different angle. The age of innocence is now gone.

If the whistleblowers you read about inspired you and you’d like to take action, begin by keeping your data private. The world wide web is powerful and overwhelming at connecting everything, and our phones are now more tracking devices than helpful tools.

You have the power to change this and protect your privacy. Here are just a few suggestions, but you can always find more at the Privacy Hub:


What’s your take on whistleblowers? Are they traitors or heroes?

Let me know in the comments below.

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