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Byron Shire
December 5, 2022

Spooked nation

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Image: Jannoon028 - Freepik.com
Image: Jannoon028 – Freepik.com

It was entirely appropriate that the Pirate Party said ‘told you so’ when the news came out last week that an Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer had accessed a journalist’s metadata without a warrant. Some days it’s hard to tell who are the pirates and who’s the law.

‘Setting up a mass surveillance system was always going to lead to egregious breaches in privacy and we only know about this one because the victim was a journalist,’ said the deputy chief pirate Michael Keating.

The Echo is naturally interested in what happens to journalists and their professional and personal privacy. A breach such as this erodes journalists’ confidence in being able to do their job without interference and it frightens off whistleblowers who have important information to share about government malfeasance.

The general public should be interested, too. The federal government’s legislation seems more directed towards uncovering whistleblowers rather than tracking down terrorists, and once whistleblowers give up talking to journalists open government is in tatters.

Once transparency goes, the opportunity to operate a nation as a police state increases tremendously. Combine this with the spooks’ ability to detain people without a warrant and we have fertile ground for our own version of the former East Germany’s infamous Stasi.

There is some hope in that the AFP reported the breach of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 to the Commonwealth Ombudsman. It offers less hope that AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin can’t see that ‘internal independent review’ is something of an oxymoron, as it often has been with Australian police forces.

It is hard to believe the breach was only ‘human error’. It is worrying that the officer involved has not been disciplined. It is even more worrying that the journalist offended against has not been informed. It seems there is one law for us folk if caught fiddling with ‘carriage devices’ and a different, privileged law for the spooks.

According to the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA), ‘The new regime… allows 21 government agencies to identify and pursue a journalist’s sources (without the journalist’s knowledge)…’ It is hard to believe that all the spooks and bureaucrats in these agencies have a good grasp of the meaning of civil liberties and the right of the citizen to privacy – and the need for a warrant if that privacy is to be invaded.

So far the use of a virtual private network (VPN) is not illegal in Australia if one wishes to protect one’s identity from prying eyes. Techies I’ve spoken to don’t recommend free VPNs built into some browsers, so shop around and read the reviews. It’s one route journalists will be going down before their sources are reduced to leaving secret notes in park walls.

– Michael McDonald


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