Denmark’s lesson in whistleblowing: Don’t arrest the whistleblowers

Privacy news
2 mins
Whistle with Danish flag.

This post was originally published on September 3, 2020.

In the case of prominent U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden, uncovering mass surveillance programs led him to flee the country and lead years in exile, with the likely possibility of facing criminal charges if he goes home.

But in a recent revelation of government surveillance in Denmark, the whistleblowers were not reprimanded. Instead, the country’s foreign intelligence chief was suspended for illegally spying on Danish citizens for close to six years.

A statement released on August 24 by Danish intelligence oversight board TET (Tilsynet med Efterretningstjenesterne) accused the Defense Intelligence Service, FE (Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste), of violating data privacy laws since 2014, based on evidence brought to the watchdog by “one or more” whistleblowers.

In addition to spying on its citizens, TET also accused FE of withholding information and deliberately misleading TET with “incorrect information” in its previous investigations into FE’s activities, enabling “inappropriate legality culture,” and, euphemistically, of “improper management of information regarding an employee of (TET),” which implies that FE was also spying on TET employees.

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Within a day of these allegations, the head of FE, Lars Findsen, and two more senior officials were suspended from the positions pending an investigation by the Ministry of Defence into the activities of the agency.

Oversight done right

It’s not the first time that TET has brought allegations of misconduct within FE, but as Denmark Radio legal correspondent Trine Maria Ilsøe remarked, “It is thought-provoking that this case comes on the basis of one or more whistleblowers. Without this information, no case. It is very spectacular.”

With whistleblowers providing supporting material, the allegations hold substantially more weight. TET’s report also pushed for more resources for an “external whistleblower scheme” to make it easier for FE employees to “comment on criticisable matters … without fear of negative retaliation.”

The Danish government’s response to these allegations stands in stark contrast to the U.S’s response to Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing in 2013, which exposed numerous global surveillance programs and ignited discussions about privacy. In fact, Snowden’s revelations informed the decision in Denmark to set up TET in 2014.

Unlike Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and other whistleblowers sounding the alarm on overreaching surveillance power in the U.S., whistleblowers in Denmark (who have not been publicly named) have been propped up as a critical part of getting oversight over government bodies to actually hold people in power accountable.

In further contrast to the Danish intelligence services, the U.S. director of national intelligence James Clapper faced no repercussions for lying about domestic surveillance seven years ago and still appears on news circuits to this day.

Whistleblowing shouldn’t have to be so risky

It’s unlikely we’ll know all the “extremely sensitive” details from the current investigation into Denmark’s government surveillance, but it has already demonstrated just how differently a country can respond to whistleblower-backed accusations of government surveillance. Whistleblowers elsewhere shouldn’t have to live in exile for fear of imprisonment as a result of calling out overreaching and underchecked government powers, but they do.

Denmark created an independent oversight board specifically to call intelligence services out, but not every country has the infrastructure, nor the same opinion, as Denmark on whistleblowing. For most, whistleblowing is still incredibly difficult, if not very dangerous, and every precaution should be taken.

Ceinwen focused on digital privacy, censorship, and surveillance, and has interviewed leading figures in tech.