John Tye, a Belmont native, knows a few things about whistleblowing.
In 2014, as a former State Department employee, he sounded the alarm on the National Security Agency’s secret spying program on Americans. In 2017, he started Whistleblower Aid, a D.C.-based nonprofit which represents people looking to expose wrongdoing.
Since starting his organization, he has counseled some of the most high-profile whistleblowers. They include Frances Haugen, who recently exposed Facebook’s internal workings and has triggered a torrent of almost-daily media reports; an intelligence official, whose disclosures led to President Trump’s first impeachment; and a Google employee, who showed the company paid many temporary workers less than full-time staff, misleading investors about liabilities it faced abroad.
In a phone conversation on Wednesday, he offered potential advice to Boston-area employees on how to safely expose wrongdoing at their companies (things like harassment, embezzlement, and fraud).
The first step, Tye said, before talking to anyone or collecting any documents, is making sure your communications are secure. Download and use Signal, an encrypted phone messaging application, for low-stakes conversations. Use Tor, an encrypted web browser, and SecureDrop for highly sensitive matters.
“Never use e-mail,” he said.
After getting communications in order, the next step is simple. “Talk first to a lawyer,” he said. “Don’t talk to your boss, don’t talk to your friends, don’t talk to a journalist ... An [expert] lawyer should have some knowledge about this area ... and they can protect your communications.”
If you wish to retain private counsel, fees can range upwards of $600 to $1,400 per hour, Tye said. Alternatively, potential whistleblowers can come to his organization, which provides legal representation, strategic advice, access to secure communication methods, and in some cases, private armed guards.
In some cases, its services are free. However, if a whistleblower’s information leads to the government recovering monetary damages — which, in many cases, entitles the whistleblower to 10 percent to 30 percent of fees collected — Whistleblower Aid would charge a percentage fee. Tye declined to say how much.
After finding counsel, it’s time to collect documents or other evidence. Make sure to follow the rules, and keep in mind any confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements you may have signed when hired.
“Don’t hack into a computer system,” he said. “Don’t try to crack a password, don’t try to break a lock to a file cabinet or an office.”
After collecting documents, it’s best to lodge a complaint with a regulatory agency, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Treasury Department, or a local or state agency. Government action is not guaranteed, but filing a complaint is important because it triggers anti-retaliation provisions protecting whistleblowers, Tye said.
Finally, decide what to do next. There are multiple options, he said. Whistleblowers can “go home” and never think about their complaint again. They could also submit information to members of Congress, hoping it triggers hearings or legislative action. They can work with journalists, anonymously or on the record (I recommend the Globe), to help put a spotlight on the issue.
And if you’re like Haugen, maybe you can celebrate afterward, hanging out in Puerto Rico with your “crypto friends.”