When truth telling becomes a casualty of surveillance Reply

By Greta Stonehouse

Information is freedom Pic credit Gallo

A protest of conviction. Photograph: Gallo

In the wake of new terror laws in Australia, journalists and whistleblowers now face up to 10 years jail for reporting on sensitive areas of national security. The first Walkley Media Talk of 2015 held recently at the State Library examined whether it is the duty of journalists to toe the government’s national security line, or is it more important than ever to dig up the truth? 

“Regrettably, for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift,” the Prime Minister Abbott said last September as the Government prepared to introduce counter-terrorism laws. It was a comment that caused journalists and citizens alike to wonder how this shift would manifest itself.

In light of the recent Federal Government reforms to data retention, the shift is beginning to be revealed in the cyber world. The recent Walkley Foundation discussion between award-winning investigative journalist Quentin Dempster, Four Corners journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna, and IT journalist Josh Taylor, examined what this means for Australian citizens, and its effect on journalism.

Under new reforms, telecommunication companies are obliged to keep the data of its users for a minimum period of two years. But what exactly is being kept?

“In the context of messaging — email, for example — it reveals the sender, recipient, time and date, but not the content. Access to content, I stress, requires a warrant,” the Federal Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull said when introducing the Government’s controversial metadata retention laws [Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014]. He stressed the importance of data retention for investigations into counter-terrorism and cyber-security.

While Quentin Dempster addressed the enormous pressure the Australian Government is under to keep Australians safe, it was pointed out that data retention played no part in two of the most recent terrorist attacks.  Both the assailant involved in the siege in the Lindt café in Martin place, and one of the gunmen from the Charlie Hebdo attack in France, were already known to security officials.  France has had mandatory data retention since 2006.

Quentin Dempster asked, “Is this Government more anti-terrorism or anti-whistleblower?”

Something that was becoming resoundingly clear: journalists were seeing the bill as potentially threatening to their professional practice. Caro Meldrum-Hanna reflected on the moment she realised how much her practice was about to change. When Four Corners finished its 2014 season, the team sat down to discuss stories past, and the ones to come.  At the time, the journalists were subjected to a lecture on how they should go about communicating with their sources. It was the first time Ms Meldrum-Hanna appreciated the “gravity, breadth and depth” of what the Bill would mean for her future practice.

‘Dead drops’, an email account used to contact a source no more than once or twice before it is disabled was Josh’s advice for counteracting the new reforms.  Caro Meldrum-Hanna suggested the use of multiple phones and extreme caution when connecting to the Internet. She said one of her phones never connects to the ABC network, just in case.

Whether it be a computer or mobile phone, the way the data from an electronic device is tracked is through its connection to the internet.  Ditching electronic devices altogether is fast becoming the safest way for journalists to communicate with someone, something the speakers described as a regression back to old-school journalism.  “We’re talking boots on the ground,” Ms Meldrum-Hanna said.

To exemplify how future stories may be affected, the speakers discussed particular stories as examples.

In September last year, the ABC’s 7.30 report uncovered an Australian senior Islamic state member, Mohammad Ali Baryalei, as responsible for many of the Australians fighting on the front lines of the Syrian conflict.  However, it is now uncertain whether this investigation would be a breach of national security under the recent reforms. Given the punishment for a journalist disclosing “special intelligence operations” has risen from five to ten years, the question is certainly a pertinent one.

If journalists do find they are in possession of sensitive source information or material, there is always what Caro Meldrum-Hanna described as the “ASIO hotline”, aka the National Security Hotline, encouraging journalists to call up and divulge the entire contents of an impending scoop, in case it is in breach of national security.

Josh Taylor noted that foreign-owned companies, such as Gmail, Viber, Snapchat, Whatsapp and Imessage, are excluded from the recent legislation.  While communicating via Snapchat may not be the most practical, it’s seems relatively private.

While George Brandis might insist that prosecuting journalists under such laws is a “fanciful notion”, one only needs to look back to 2008 when political reporter Laurie Oakes had his telephone records accessed in a bid to uncover a cabinet leak.

It wasn’t just the written word that is being questioned. Digital photographs also contain metadata, like an inbuilt GPS tracker.  Recorded on each picture is the location of where and when the picture was taken.

And it’s not just journalists who are affected by these new laws.  An individual’s privacy is inextricably linked with her or his sense of identity.  Online personalities are curated by the choices individuals make, the choice to put a particular photo up, or have certain conversations via email. While the content of messages cannot be accessed without a warrant, the Attorney–General of the day may amend this part of the legislation.


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