The hard life of a whistleblower

22 Aug 2013

There seems to be an undercurrent of people who think that whistleblowers do what they do for their five minutes of fame; that journalists collaborate and write these stories for fame and money.

People like Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and even publishers like Julian Assange are brave to have taken the steps they have taken. Misguided perhaps, naive quite probably, but definitely brave.

Rather than write yet another column about the effects of Manning’s sentence and the way the Axis of Espionage has cracked down on people (and hard drives, literally) working on the NSA files, allow me to embark on a trip down memory lane and relive the tale of the brave souls who have entrusted me with leaked information.

Back in 2005 one senior civil servant was brave enough to sign the death warrant on his career and came to me with details of how an 888 million baht ($27.9 million) smart ID card project broke just about every technical specification in the procurement document.

The story made the lead story on the front page of the Bangkok Post, the first time Javacard had made the lead story on any national newspaper, so I was later told.

That evening, I was summoned by the ICT Minister and offered to work on an obscenely high paying project. Then the world continued to revolve and everyone forgot about it.

Later, a source bidding on the contract collaborated and told me that the industry did not have any orders for that amount of silicon moving to deliver those cards. Yet another handed over copies of procurement documents showing that the readers independently procured miraculously happened to work with those oddball cards in a bidding process where the specifications of the cards were kept secret from the bidders until after they had won the contract.

Undeterred, he continued leaking details on Thailand’s e-passport project. Among other things (many, many other things), the security on the cards was practically nonexistent and it was possible to reprogram the secure biometric information on the passports.

In exposing that vulnerability officials in charge of the project began prosecuting him for destroying a government document instead.

While many vaguely remember the news stories, what of the sources? Two of the three had to flee overseas and only recently did they return to Thailand with a decade of their lives lost. One at least managed to continue working in his field while the other seemed to spend the years doing nothing much apart from swimming and enjoying the countryside.

I asked my friend why he would want to give up his lakeside house and clean air for the smog filled rut that is Bangkok when he announced plans for his return. “It’s home,” he replied.

Closer to my new home I will always have a soft spot for one telco whose executives have been on the wrong end of bullets, delivered both out of an envelope and out of a gun.

What happened to the officials involved in the scandals? Promoted, decorated, honoured and in one case now head of one of Thailand’s largest state enterprises.

And of the journalist? I am still here, still writing, still hoping against hope for a better, brighter future for all of us and ever thankful of the opportunity TelecomAsia has given me to be freed from the shackles of domestic commercial advertising concerns.

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