Exploiting Scandalous Evidence

Political Exposé

Let’s say you possess incriminating or embarrassing evidence about someone.  Maybe it’s a spycam video catching a public official in an act of corruption or audio in which an executive admits her corporation violates the law.  Maybe it is obscure data that you find on the Deep Web (the web not indexed by popular search engines) and you uniquely know how to piece it together to tell an unexpected story.

You know this evidence is sensitive and it serves a public interest.  How do you handle it?

Here are options and issues:

1.  Ethics. Ask an independent party like an attorney to evaluate the evidence for credibility and to provide input on the ethical use of the evidence.

2.  Money.  Inquire whether you are entitled to protection and compensation under whistleblower law.  Invocation of whistleblower law may require turning the evidence over to law enforcement or filing a lawsuit.  Federal tax law provides compensation to whistleblowers who provide the IRS reliable evidence about cheating by a particular taxpayer.  The False Claims Act provides a bounty to whistleblowers who sue lawbreakers and successfully recover money on behalf of the federal government.

3.  Editing.  Should you hide or redact information from the evidence before publishing it?  Blurring faces or removing other personally identifiable information may be the prudent, responsible thing to do.  Masking of graphic details can help portray you as a conscientious citizen, not a gossip monger.

4.  Investigate.  Should a careful investigation of the facts be undertaken to determine how the evidence was gathered, what the evidence actually depicts or whether the compilation of the evidence violated any laws?  When an investigation is led by an attorney, often the methods and the outcome can often be kept confidential under something known as the attorney work-product doctrine.

5.  Third Party.  Should you use an intermediary to publish the evidence or present it to authorities, while protecting your identity?  Both attorneys and police agencies have legal power to maintain confidentiality.

6.  News Media.  Should you sell the evidence to the news media?  Sometimes they do pay for good material.

7.  Disclaimers.  Consider how to present the evidence to authorities or the public.  Does it need explanation and background?  Does it need disclaimers?

8.  Exoneration.  Should you file a lawsuit to cause a court to declare that the evidence was not stolen or created in a way that violates privacy, property or other rights?

Are you an amateur gumshoe? What is your experience dealing with evidence of a scam or hipocrisy?

–Benjamin Wright

Mr. Wright teaches the law of data security and investigations at the SANS Institute, where he teaches professionals how to use Internet media to deliver legal messages.

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