Edward Snowden has condemned Australian law enforcement for collecting the communications records of a Guardian journalist without a warrant.
The world’s most prominent whistleblower, who disclosed dragnet surveillance unprecedented in its scale by the National Security Agency and its allies, singled out for critique the Australian government’s contention that it broke no laws in its leak investigation of Paul Farrell, a Guardian reporter who in 2014 exposed the inner workings of Australia’s maritime interception of asylum seekers.
“Police in developed democracies don’t pore over journalists’ private activities to hunt down confidential sources,” Snowden told the Guardian.
“The Australian federal police are defending such operations as perfectly legal, but that’s really the problem, isn’t it? Sometimes the scandal is not what law was broken, but what the law allows.”
Throughout 2015 the Australian parliament enacted a series of controversial laws that curbed privacy and freedom of expression rights.
Geoffrey King, director of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Technology Program, said the AFP’s actions were “obviously outrageous”.
“This should not be happening. But it is the inevitable result of mandatory data retention and mass surveillance, which is neither necessary nor proportional to any threat,” King said. “It doesn’t line up with the values that we all adhere to, to good counter terrorism strategy, and it certainly doesn’t line up with a free and open society where journalists can do their jobs.”
In March 2015 the Australian Senate passed legislation requiring internet and mobile phone companies to retain customer metadata for 24 months. The bill was vehemently opposed by the Australian Greens, whose communications spokesman, Senator Scott Ludlam, called its new provisions a “form of mass surveillance”.
Although a last-minute amendment obliged security agencies to get a warrant before accessing a journalist’s metadata, the law essentially expands the Australian government’s ability to conduct dragnet surveillance.
Australia, along with the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, is part of the Five Eyes signals-intelligence sharing network.
Documents leaked by Snowden in 2013 revealed that Australian spying authorities had offered to share bulk metadata of ordinary Australian citizens with their partners in the Five Eyes network. Other documents Snowden leaked revealed Australian spies had attempted to listen in to the phone calls of former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his inner circle, causing an extended diplomatic rift between the two countries.
The investigation into Farrell’s sources, for a story relating to the activities of an Australian customs vessel and a controversial operation to turn back a boat carrying asylum seekers from Indonesia, was conducted in 2014, before the amendment passed parliament. Law enforcement did not need a warrant for accessing the information at the time.
The case marks the first time the AFP has confirmed seeking access to a journalist’s metadata in a specific case, although the agency has admitted to investigating several journalists reporting on Australian immigration.
The acknowledgement that authorities had sought access to Farrell’s records was only divulged after the reporter lodged a complaint to Australia’s privacy commissioner under the country’s Privacy Act.
In July 2015, the Australian government passed the Border Force Act, which criminalises whistleblowing from within Australia’s hardline immigration detention network, making it an offense punishable with up to two years in prison.
The country’s “Operation Sovereign Borders”, a harsh, military-led crackdown on asylum seekers who attempt to enter Australia by boat, includes a policy of turning back boats carrying migrants and deporting every arrival including children to harsh, offshore detention centres in Papua New Guinea and the tiny pacific island state of Nauru, for permanent resettlement.