The privacy movement and dissent: Whistleblowing

By EDRi · August 23, 2017

This is the second blogpost of a series, originally published by EDRi member Bits of Freedom, that explains how the activists of a Berlin-based privacy movement operate, organise, and express dissent. The series is inspired by a thesis by Loes Derks van de Ven, which describes the privacy movement as she encountered it from 2013 to 2015.*

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Whistleblowing as a way of expressing dissent is tied to the privacy movement. To fully understand the act of whistleblowing, it is important to understand that whistleblowing encountered in the privacy movement is not only a form of dissent, but also shows qualities of civil disobedience and protest.

Two elements characterise whistleblowing as an expression of dissent: disagreement and complaint. Whistleblowing has a clear aim to enforce change within an organisation and is often done out of ethical considerations, but never under threat or under oath.

In addition to dissent, whistleblowing can also be seen as civil disobedience. For example, Edward Snowden said he did what he believed right and began a campaign to correct this wrongdoing. The aims Snowden tried to achieve by disclosing the NSA documents are politically motivated: he wanted to inform the public about government surveillance activities so that policies could be adjusted as the public wished. By turning to the press he addressed this issue openly, and by addressing this issue openly he forced the entire discussion out into the open and thereby turned it into a public discussion. What he wanted to achieve with his disclosures and the subsequent public discussion was clear, and the way in which he did this was deliberate and conscientious.

Contrary to whistleblowing, protesting is something that is done by a group and hardly ever by one single individual. Mobilisation is the most powerful element of protesting, because it is usually the mobilisation that brings organisations’ wrongdoings to light. Furthermore, whistleblowing and protest also differ in the sense that whistleblowers, in comparison to protesters, are more vulnerable to reprisals, operate solo, have an intra-organisational focus, have few strategic options, and only approach the media as a last resort. The boundary between whistleblowing and protest, however, can become vague as they are both a “morally propelled action”, involve “personal risk-taking”, are “change-focused”, are “vulnerable to name calling”, and involve “strategic planning”.

When looking at the way in which Edward Snowden blew the whistle, the differences between whistleblowing and protest become even smaller. Snowden’s actions already stopped being those of an individual the moment he contacted Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, months before he gave them the entire set of documents and the subsequent moment of actual publication. It is also worth noting that the use of media was certainly not Snowden’s last resort but rather one of his first choices. Furthermore, Snowden did not solely focus on change within the organisation. Instead, he focused on a type of change that would entail a major social and political change, not just of the NSA but of a larger group of intelligence agencies and governments.

For a number of reasons, whistleblowers take up an exceptional place within the privacy movement. First, much of what the movement is concerned with is related to actions of intelligence services of which the exact conduct is not made public. Activists are therefore quite reliant on the information whistleblowers disclose to know what is really happening in the field of surveillance.

Second, once whistleblowers have decided to blow the whistle and make certain classified information public, their position often changes. By blowing the whistle they exclude themselves from the organisation they previously worked for, both physically and mentally. They often find a new home within the privacy movement. We can, again, turn to Edward Snowden to see how such a development unfolds.

The first year after his revelations Snowden kept a relatively low profile. Slowly, he started to accept awards and give public speeches, for example at the 2014 Dutch Big Brother Awards; took his first steps in writing articles, for instance in The New York Times; and became a member of the Board of Directors of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Last, because whistleblowing can have such drastic consequences, whistleblowers often receive respect and protection by the privacy movement. There is an enormous awareness among privacy advocates of the sacrifices whistleblowers make. A striking example is Glenn Greenwald’s keynote lecture at the 30th Chaos Communication Congress, six months after the first publications of the Snowden documents.

Greenwald stated that Snowden “has been utterly indispensable and deserves every last accolade and to share in every last award”, and this was followed by a loud applause from the audience. This respect for whistleblowers also shows in organisations that support whistleblowers. When whistleblowers leak classified information, there is much at stake for them and they largely depend on others for help. They are at risk of losing their freedom, either because they are given a prison sentence or because they are forced to live in exile. This is a high price to pay, and activists and organisations within the movement dedicate themselves to helping them.

Whistleblowers have an exceptional position within the privacy movement; both as valuable sources of information and as respected members. And although whistleblowing should not be seen as protest, in practice we see that for the privacy movement the two are intricately linked. In the next article, we will further explore how the privacy movement uses art to express dissent.

The series was originally published by EDRi member Bits of Freedom at

Dissent in the privacy movement: whistleblowing, art and protest (12.07.2017)

(Contribution by Loes Derks van de Ven)

* This research was finalised in 2015 and does not take into account the changes within the movement that have occurred since then.



Jubb, Peter B. “Whistleblowing: A Restrictive Definition and Interpretation” Journal of Business Ethics 21 (1999): 77-94.
Scheuerman, William E. “Whistleblowing As Civil Disobedience: The Case of Edward Snowden.” Philosophy and Social Criticism 40.7 (2014): 609-628.
De Maria, William. “Whistleblowers and Organizational Protesters. Crossing Imaginary Borders.” Current Sociology 56.6 (2008): 865-883.