The Stack Archive

The challenges for whistleblowers in China and the Asia Pacific

Tue 5 Apr 2016

South-east Asia and China, and indeed the Asia Pacific in general, are complex regions populated by democracies, authoritarian governments, and everything in between. Personal rights and freedom of speech are sometimes championed, and other times brutally suppressed. These powerful political dynamics lead to the fascinating intersection — or perhaps collision — of whistleblowing technology (apps, data encryption, Tor browsers), which can help expose state corruption, human rights abuses or shady business practices, with evolving cultural norms (corporate and societal), the promotion of officially sanctioned anti-corruption campaigns, and state-based censorship.

And whilst whistleblowing technology might have changed in recent years (more than just an anonymous phone call or letter), the fundamental question remains the same: Who’s reporting on whom, exactly, and why are they doing it?

Digital Davids and institutional Goliaths

The Chinese Communist Party doesn’t like corruption, and they want everyone to know it. This has been made abundantly clear with the revving up of the Disciplinary Code this year, and recent anti-corruption trials, most notably that of Party security chief Zhou Yongkang, sentenced to life imprisonment for bribery and other crimes. The code, which harkens back to stricter Maoist times, could be used to clean up graft as advertised — or perhaps just as easily be used to eliminate political rivals in internecine power struggles.

And while some big fish have been caught up in China’s anti-corruption net, the government is letting the ‘little guy’ in on the action as well, with a free whistleblowing app provided by the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), available for Android and iOS devices. The CCDI says its app protects the anonymity of the user — although in a nation with the largest, and perhaps most sophisticated internet censorship on the planet (China’s famed Great Firewall), public trust in a state-sponsored whistleblowing app might not be as high as the Party would hope for.

Moving on to Malaysia, we can see how the whistleblowing site the Sarawak Report (based in London), reporting on corruption involving billions of dollars of “unexplained cash” channelled into the Malaysian Prime Minister’s personal bank accounts, came up against an institutional Goliath (not as large as China, but few are these days) of its own. And for their efforts, the Report was officially blocked in Malaysian on a ‘national security’ basis. The government even tried (unsuccessfully) to have the Report’s editor placed on INTERPOL’s Red Notice list, which, according to the Sarawak Report, is “normally reserved for terror suspects.”

Smart apps and the future of whistleblowing

“In most instances, they [the whistleblowers] are being vilified and poorly treated,” Sylvain Mansotte, co-founder (and a former whistleblower himself) of Whispli, and the whistleblowing app Fraudsec, tells The Stack. “This is not about to change anytime soon … only technology enabling secure, anonymous communication will be an effective way to protect whistleblowers.”

The problem then arises as to where potential whistleblowers should place their trust as far as security and anonymity go vis-à-vis state sponsored or sanctioned whistleblowing apps and websites, like the ones provided by China’s CCDI, or in technological solutions provided by private industry?

The founders of WildLeaks, which bills itself as the “world’s first wildlife crime whistleblowing initiative,” have a strong interest in hearing from whistleblowers in the Asia Pacific, as the illegal ivory trade is immense in China, and in neighbouring countries. The demand for animal contraband (ivory, rhino horns, sea tortoises shells, tiger bones and more) has a knock on effect, leading to conflict, suffering and death — both human and animal — in regions (Africa and elsewhere) exploited to feed this demand.

WildLeaks, acutely aware of the dangers surrounding whistleblowing of this kind, offers would-be whistleblowers two security options. The Confidential option makes use of Tor2Web software, which the site warns, “Could still be traced by governmental agencies or employers.” The Anonymous option, based on Tor technology and GlobaLeaks open source software, is for people who want to remain completely hidden from prying eyes. WildLeaks kindly walks the less technologically savvy among us (although savvy enough to worry about reprisals from criminal or governmental enterprises) through Tor browser installation, and the secure use of Tor technology.

Sylvain Mansotte’s Australian-based Whispli wants to make whistleblowing as safe, versatile and user-friendly as possible. The company offers various products, like Fraudsec, which tackles malfeasance in the business world, JournoTips (utilized by Fairfax Media and the Huffington Post) for sending anonymous tips to journalists, plus a host of other whistleblowing apps and services, dealing with issues from schoolyard bullying to domestic violence.

Mansotte believes technology is the key, as whistleblowing legislation, which varies from country to country, will “never be good enough for the protection of most whistleblowers.” To this end, the company employs a mixture of easy-to-use responsive apps, IP address scrubbing, 256 bit SSL data encryption (AES256 for data at rest) hosted on AWS (Amazon Web Services) servers, and other security solutions, all aimed at keeping data as secure as possible. “With more and more hackers, from Asia in particular, on the look out for new systems to penetrate, it’s a constant task for us to beef up our security and protect the data that transits via Fraudsec,” Mansotte says, “but this is what we do for a living,” which is why his team is constantly running penetration tests on their apps, ensuring the integrity of the data.

The culture of whistleblowing in the Asia Pacific

Official whistleblowing policies (or lack thereof) in places like Hong Kong and Mainland China, combined with cultural norms and taboos, can often complicate the nature of whistleblowing. “As there is no overarching legislation in Hong Kong that offers statutory protection to whistleblowers, the inadequacy of legal protection is one of the obstacles that may deter employees from reporting genuine concerns about fraud, malpractices or inappropriate behaviour in the workplace,” Anita Lam, a solicitor advocate, and an ACFE certified fraud examiner at DLA Piper’s employment group in Hong Kong, explains to The Stack.

She points out that while quite a few financial institutions and multinational corporations in Hong Kong have anonymous whistleblowing hotlines, websites and other processes in place, getting people to actually report wrongdoing can be problematic. “From a cultural perspective, having a number of different anonymous reporting channels or mechanisms is important,” she says. “This is because for some Chinese companies, reporting concerns against superiors is tantamount to betrayal of trust.”

The inadequacy of legal protection is one of the obstacles that may deter employees from reporting genuine concerns about fraud, malpractices or inappropriate behaviour

According to ACFE’s 2016 Global Fraud Study, tipoffs by employees is the most common fraud and malpractices detection method, with email and web-based forms making up more than half the number (some people still report by phone) of reported cases, which means fostering secure whistleblowing technological solutions, and greater cultural acceptance, should go hand in hand.

Trust is obviously a big issue when it comes to whistleblowing. AWS servers (now located in China) allow a company like Whispli to store data wherever a client needs. “Even in a country like China,” Sylvain Mansotte says, “we can deploy our solutions and comply with Chinese requirements, as our data can be stored in China, and be reviewed in China before any action involving a potential non-Chinese citizen can be taken.” But clearly that brings us back to the question of who’s doing the reporting, how secure the whistleblower’s identity is, and who’s in charge of the information coming in? That’s enough to do your head in, right?

The ability to anonymously report on corruption, human rights violations or illicit trade is a wonderful tool, although it can conversely be used for selfish reasons, or to settle old scores (personal, professional or political). As whistleblowing apps and technology evolve, it will be interesting to see how these tools bring out the best in us — and possibly the worst. Chances are we’ll get a substantial helping of both.

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