Geeks and leaks: Top 10 tech whistleblowers of all time

Traitors or patriots? Heroes or villains? These 10 engineers, academics, and scientists became famous for blowing the lid on dubious practices

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Geeks and leaks: Top 10 tech whistleblowers

The following 10 men have two things in common: They risked their jobs and their freedom to reveal truths others wanted to keep hidden -- and they were geeks. These engineers, academics, and scientists became famous for blowing the whistle on their employers, often to their detriment. Some ended up in prison. Others were immortalized by Hollywood.

Traitors or patriots? Heroes or villains? You decide.

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Daniel Ellsberg

Leak: The Pentagon Papers (1969)

He is the über whistleblower, the one against which all others are measured. An economics Ph.D. and analyst for the Rand Corporation, Ellsberg shared 7,000 pages of classified documents with the New York Times showing how three presidential administrations and the military lied about the Vietnam War. Facing a sentence of 115 years in prison for violating the Espionage Act, Ellsberg avoided prison time after the Nixon administration bugged his psychiatrist's office and the judge declared a mistrial. The Supreme Court case based on his actions, New York Times Co. v. the United States, established the right of newspapers to reveal government secrets without fear of censorship or retribution.

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Peter Buxtun

Leak: The Tuskegee experiments

An epidemiologist working for the U. S. Public Health Service, the then-27-year-old Buxtun discovered that the USPHS had deliberately withheld treatment for 400 African-American men infected with syphilis so that they could study the long-term effects of the disease. Forty years after the study began -- and six years after first reporting his objections to his superiors -- Buxtun revealed its existence to a reporter for the Washington Star. Congressional hearings were held, the experiment was terminated, and a class-action suit was filed. The federal government ended up paying victims' families $10 million.

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Mordechai Vanunu

Leak: The existence of Israel's nuclear program (1986)

The former nuclear technician revealed details about Israel's nuclear weapons program to the Sunday Times of London in 1986. He was then lured to Italy by Israeli intelligence officers, kidnapped, tried in a secret court, and sent to prison for 18 years, 11 of them in solitary confinement. Released in 2004, he's been harassed by the Israeli government ever since and is still not allowed to travel outside the country. To this day, Israel refuses to acknowledge it has nukes, though some estimate it possesses more than 100 warheads.

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Mark Whitacre

Leak: Price fixing by Archer Daniels Midland (1992)

A Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry, Whitacre was president of ADM's BioProducts division when he became involved in a lysine price-fixing scheme in 1992. For the next three years, Whitacre served as a mole for the FBI, wearing a wire to collect evidence that resulted in the conviction of three ADM executives. Whitacre was later convicted of embezzlement and tax fraud and served nearly nine years -- more than three times the sentence of his price-fixing colleagues. In 2009, Whitacre was portrayed by Matt Damon in the movie "The Informant."

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Jeffrey Wigand

Leak: Tobacco company manipulation of nicotine levels (1996)

As head of R&D at tobacco company Brown & Williamson, biochem Ph.D. Wigand was in a perfect position to know just how much the cigarette maker was manipulating the nicotine in its products -- which he then shared with the nation via CBS's "60 Minutes." Among other things, Wigand's account proved tobacco company CEOs were blowing smoke up Congress's assets when they testified in 1994 that cigarrettes were not addictive. Wigand was played by Russell Crowe in the 1999 movie "The Insider."

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Shawn Carpenter

Leak: Existence of Chinese hackers infiltrating U.S. government computers (2005)

As network security analyst at Sandia National Laboratories, Carpenter's job was to detect and prevent intrusions into the weapon lab's network. But when he traced a massive infiltration of government computers back to Chinese cyber agents, he was told to stick to Sandia's systems and ignore everything else. Instead Carpenter went to army intelligence and later the FBI, which used his research in a case they called Titan Rain. After learning of his work for the FBI, Sandia fired him. Carpenter sued for wrongful termination and won a $4.3 million settlement.

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William Binney

Leak: NSA's Stellar Wind surveillance program (2005)

Cryptographer and math geek Binney worked for No Such Agency for 30-plus years, even developing a data processing system called ThinThread that he says could have prevented the 9/11 attacks while guarding the privacy of ordinary Americans. When the NSA opted for a more intrusive and ultimately failed technology, Binney retired and turned whistleblower. Along with fellow ex-NSA spooks Thomas Drake and J. Kirk Wiebe, Binney has told anyone who'll listen how the NSA turned ThinThread into a tool for domestic spying, stripping out privacy protections and giving the agency "the ability to map anyone's entire life over time." The trio has come forward to verify many of the claims made by Edward Snowden.

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Mark Klein

Leak: Location of secret NSA wiretap room at AT&T (2006)

When retired communications technician Mark Klein read about the Bush administration's wireless wiretapping program in December 2005, he finally figured out what was inside room 641A of AT&T's San Francisco switching station. NSA techs had installed equipment that could siphon off data from AT&T's Internet backbone -- one of 10 or 20 estimated to exist in telecom centers around the country. When Klein approached the media and government regulators, he was ignored. Once he got the Electronic Frontier Foundation to pay attention, though, his story went public. The EFF filed suit against the government, a case that is ongoing.

Reuters / Gary Cameron

Bradley Manning

Leak: 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, videos of U.S. military airstrikes (2010)

Employed as an army intelligence analyst in Iraq, the 22-year-old PFC Manning downloaded more than 250,000 classified State Department cables and sent them to WikiLeaks. From them we learned mostly embarrassing details about other nations' leaders -- for example, the late Libyan leader Moamar Khadafy never went anywhere without his Ukranian nurse -- but the documents are also credited by some for inspiring the Arab Spring. Manning plead guilty to 10 of 22 counts of violating military law in February 2013 and is currently undergoing court martial for the rest.

Reuters / Bobby Yip

Edward Snowden

Leak: NSA collection of U.S. citizens' phone and Internet records (2013)

The current poster boy for whistleblowing created a storm of epic proportions by leaking documents that suggest the NSA is collecting phone records for millions of Americans -- essentially proving that Stellar Wind is still blowing. The 29-year-old IT infrastructure analyst also produced documents claiming that major Internet companies offer the NSA direct access to their servers (a charge each company has vehemently denied). Snowden's fate has yet to be determined, though numerous members of the U.S. government have vowed to bring the hammer down on the young geek. No word yet who'll be playing him in the movie.