Tatianna Harris
May 22, 2024

Whistleblower or Leaker? Navigating the Gray Area in Data Privacy, Security, and Public Interest

How do you navigate ethical challenges and protect organizational integrity? Discover the crucial differences between whistleblowers and leakers, their motives and justifications, legal protections, and impact to data privacy.

The flow of information throughout organizations can be both a powerful tool and a formidable threat when taken outside a company. The distinction between being a whistleblower and a leaker is crucial yet often misconstrued - not every leaker is a whistleblower. Both roles involve the dissemination of information, but their motivations, implications, and the legal landscape and protections that govern them differ significantly.

Understanding Whistleblowing

Whistleblowing is the act of exposing any type of information or activity that is illegal, unethical, or deemed as not correct within an organization, whether it is private or public. Typically, a whistleblower is an insider, someone within the organization who exposes this belief of misconduct or illegal activities with the intention of stopping it. Their aim? To bring light to hidden issues, often with a strong emphasis on protecting the public interest. While the motive for speaking out against these activities is relevant to news reports and the public’s backing, in a legal setting, reason for the disclosure does not matter for protections.

Legally, whistleblowers who are current or former public sector employees are protected under various statutes by the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA). In the United States the WPA shields most federal employees who disclose evidence of waste, fraud, or abuse, and allow their identities to be known. These legal protections are crucial for maintaining people’s livelihood, ensuring the whistleblower can provide essential information without the fear of retaliation.

Understanding Leaking

Similar to a whistleblower, a leaker is someone who releases sensitive information without authorization; however, this act is typically done by bypassing ethical guidelines or legal constraints. Unlike whistleblowing, leaking does not necessarily involve a higher motive of public interest. Often resulting from personal grievances or the desire to manipulate public opinion – a prime example being the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion by Dobbs on the decision to overturn Roe v Wade. The consequences of leaking are considerably different from those of whistleblowing, regularly resulting in legal action against the leaker – a.k.a saboteur – due to the unauthorized release of confidential information.

Key Differences: A slow leak vs a sharp whistleblow

The primary difference lies in the intent and the nature of the information released. These nuances, though trivial to some, serve a great purpose in helping others understand the importance of what has been shared. Driven by a duty to the public and organizational integrity, whistleblowing aims to unveil truths that can even in the broadest terms affect public welfare or reveal significant misconduct. Leakers, on the other hand, disseminate information that, while sensitive, may not necessarily point to wrongdoing or be of public concern, potentially endangering privacy and organizational security.

Ethical Considerations, Public Perception, and Cultural Impact

The ethical landscape for whistleblowers and leakers is complex. Whistleblowers face moral dilemmas, such as the potential for unforeseen negative consequences despite good intentions. Would-be-whistleblowers need to navigate these challenges carefully, ideally through established channels that respect legal frameworks and aim for the minimal necessary disclosure to address the wrongdoing. The key area here is retiring the concept of anonymity with responsible disclosure of private information. 

Public perception of whistleblowers has generally become more favorable, viewing them as protectors of public good. The inverse can be said about leakers, often carrying a stigma and perception as individuals who compromise privacy and security for personal or unaligned reasons – sabotaging whoever’s information was leaked. The media plays a significant role in shaping these narratives, in turn influencing how actions are viewed culturally, swaying public opinion and legal proceedings. 


Understanding the distinction between a whistleblower and a leaker is crucial in navigating the complex information landscape of today's organizations in the commercial space and the public sector. Making informed decisions ensures that integrity, legality, and ethical considerations guide actions. As professionals, encouraging a culture of transparency and accountability while safeguarding sensitive information is imperative in maintaining both public trust and organizational stability.

As a company whose values are rooted in helping maintain proper information stewardship and privacy, the difference between a whistleblower and a malicious leaker are distinct. EchoMark’s mission is to help keep private data private, and encourage accountability and responsible sharing of information, empowering individuals to collaborate as needed, and businesses (or agencies) to safeguard their proprietary and confidential information. We encourage readers to reflect on this differentiation and any thoughts or experiences related to whistleblowing and information handling. For those in leadership, fostering an environment where employees feel safe to report wrongdoing can significantly deter potential leaks and protect both your team and your organization's mission.

*If you’re concerned about current or potential illegal or unethical practices within your organization, utilize secure communication channels to raise your concerns internally, especially if such protocols for disclosures exist within the organization.  EchoMark’s remarks on whistleblowing do not reflect a sided affiliation, and does not advocate for, extol, or denigrate whistleblowing. EchoMark’s position and goal are to inform readers with information.