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Whistleblowers Key to Fighting Russian Sanction Evasion

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

As Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine rages on, and Western nations continue to place sanctions on Putin’s government, Russian oligarchs, and the country’s economy, whistleblowers will play a critical role in exposing attempts by Russia to retaliate against the United States and evade sanctions by infiltrating our national cybersecurity.

For many, what comes to mind when they hear the word “whistleblower” is someone, usually an employee, who identifies wrongdoing or mismanagement occurring, and shines a light on it. This is done to expose and put an end to abuse, fraud, and waste. And while this understanding would be correct, whistleblowers play an equally critical role in shaping and creating the infrastructure necessary to prevent all forms of wrongdoing from happening in the first place, including foreign attacks on U.S. cybersecurity.

The rise in cybercrime, and the statistics behind them, are startling. Ransomware attacks on the banking industry increased 13-fold last year. Cloud-based attacks increased by over 600% in the first few months of 2020. And Cybersecurity Ventures estimates that cybercrimes will cost the world over $10 trillion annually by the year 2025. The cyberspace battle is nothing new, which proves time and time again to be one of the most important areas in maintaining and strengthening our own national security. Any weaknesses or glitches in our own cybersecurity networks are vulnerable to attacks, the consequences of which can be devastating.

There is no more crucial time to ensure that our cybersecurity is as strong and prepared as possible than now, as the Russian government, finding itself on the wrong end of seemingly countless Western sanctions, may very well attempt to retaliate and attack our cyberspace. A law passed in 1863 known as “Lincoln’s Law,” aimed at reducing fraud by private contractors against the federal government during the Civil War, could play an outsized role in holding the Putin regime accountable in 2022.

This is where the False Claims Act becomes such a valuable tool in combating the ongoing cybersecurity threat Russia poses. Government agencies, such as the Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and soon the Federal Trade Commission, are using the False Claims Act–specifically the whistleblower provision–to ensure that our government’s cybersecurity is strong, and that government contractors and grant recipients charged with this duty do not attempt to defraud the government when developing the technology aimed at securing sensitive and vital information.

The federal government has never been shy in flexing its muscle and invoking the False Claims Act when warranted. In fact, whistleblower-initiated–or qui tam–actions are a valuable tool the government employs, not only to prevent abuse, fraud, and waste, but to reward those who speak up, and protect them from any retaliation that may result from their commendable and brave actions.

For example, in October 2021, the DOJ unveiled the Civil-Cyber Fraud Initiative to fight cyber crimes using the False Claims Act. In announcing the initiative, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco hailed the False Claims Act, calling it the “government’s primary civil tool to redress false claims for federal funds and property involving government programs and operations.” The initiative was designed to encourage whistleblowers to play a pivotal role in helping the government identify and root-out cyber fraud and cybersecurity breaches.

In this context, the False Claims Act is used as a sort of quality control, ensuring that the systems tasked with ensuring our cybersecurity are being constantly monitored for any abnormalities, finding and addressing vulnerabilities, and most importantly, detecting attacks or potential attacks. Some government departments require potential contractors to provide a cybersecurity self-assessment to ensure their work will be to the highest standard. When it comes to national cybersecurity, the bar can never be too high.

The government does not possess the financial resources to ensure that government contractors are doing everything in their power to develop a strong cybersecurity system. Oftentimes, whistleblowers who work on the inside can see things others cannot, and can expose any irregularities before they become bigger problems of significance to our nation’s security.

The role of the whistleblower in ensuring that our cyberspace is safe and secure from attack has never been more important.

Jeb White is Chief Executive Officer of Taxpayers Against Fraud (TAF).

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