Last week’s revelation that the person behind the leaking of classified NSA information was a young government contractor got me thinking: Should we expect to see more whistleblowing and leaks in the future? And what does this mean for how we manage our people in organizations that handle sensitive information?
The individuals behind the the NSA leak and the Wikileaks disclosure were both 20-somethings in positions where they had access to significant amounts of classified information (perhaps too much). This, of course, does not constitute a trend necessarily–it’s not as if all Gen Y-ers are dishing out top secret information on a daily basis. There have always been whistleblowers. But the coincidence does raise interesting questions. A recent Pew study showed that young Americans are more likely than older generations to prioritize protecting personal privacy over terrorism investigations (although majorities of all age groups view the phone tracking as acceptable). We all know that Millennials also expect more transparency from government and other institutions than previous generations. So as more and more Gen Y-ers enter the workforce and assume positions of leadership and access to sensitive information, will this mean more whistleblowers?
Even if there is no generational trend, “big data” and the proliferation of technology certainly provide the tools for leakers to disclose information if they are so inclined.
How organizations respond to this risk from a personnel perspective will be interesting. I’m sure agencies and organizations have already sent around memos with security reminders reinforcing the need to protect classified information. “More ethics training, here we come!” was the response from a friend of mine who works for another contracting firm. This was said in a joking sense, but for some organizations this might be the response. However, these leaks were carried out in a very intentional way by people who expressed deep misgivings about what their organizations were doing; ethics training and agency memos wouldn’t have stopped this, and they will not prevent the next Wikileaks-esque disclosure. It seems to me the response needs to address much deeper aspects of an organization’s culture and management structures. This certainly involves aspects of hiring. Much is also being said about the need for managers and teammates to be watchful for colleagues that show signs that they might be handling sensitive information inappropriately. But how we do this–in a way that preserves trust among teammates–is a thorny question.
How has your agency responded to the NSA leak? What do you think would be an effective way for an organization to prevent these instances from happening?