Last month a South Australian Police (SAPOL) officer asked me to monitor the activities of political activists in Adelaide.
On January 17, a plain-clothed officer approached me in a coffee shop. He explained that he recognised me as an activist, and told me he was with a special area of “security and intelligence” that aimed to create links between the police and the activist community.
He appeared interested in gaining information on the activities of environmental groups, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israeli products and Tamil solidarity actions.
He refused to show a badge, or any other form of identification. When I asked who he worked for, all he answered was “security and intelligence”.
During our discussion I began to suspect that this “officer” must be some kind of con artist. He gave me no name, no ID, no explanation of where my information would go or what it would be used for. I was not offered any form of payment, but it was made clear that monitoring law-abiding citizens was in the public good.
I made it very clear that I wasn't interested.
Initially, I treated the entire episode as a joke. I couldn't help but laugh at the officer throughout the conversation. His conduct seemed so unprofessional that it was hard to take it seriously. He had a friendly demeanour, but as the conversation continued I became increasingly concerned. This officer reeled off information about me, as if he had memorised details by rote. He listed public actions I have been involved in over the last six months, and seemed to know my political affiliations.
The fact that activists are likely to be subjected to more of this kind of intrusive monitoring is, however, no laughing matter. Over the last decade the surveillance state has grown significantly, and it's not just activists being targeted. All Australians are slowly losing the right to privacy.
Just last month, the attorney-general's department announced a proposal to allow Australia’s domestic spy agency, ASIO, to hack into private computers. On January 13, a spokesperson for the attorney-general's department told media that: “The purpose of this power is to allow ASIO to access the computer[s] of suspected terrorists and other security interests.”
This would expand ASIO's powers, which have already grown significantly since 2001.
In 2006, the ASIO Legislation Amendment Bill allowed increased powers for the agency to be extended until 2016. Coupled with the passing of around 54 new counter-terrorism laws over the last decade, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have more power than ever before to monitor Australians. These laws are passed under the guise of counter-terrorism, but in practice they disproportionately target non-violent activists.
It's telling that following amendments to the Telecommunications Interception Act in the 1990's, that allowed ASIO to collect certain telecommunications data without a warrant, the first major use of these new powers was against a whistleblower.
After documents were leaked that showed that the Howard government was aware of Indonesian military support for militia attacks on independence advocates in East Timor (now Timor-Leste), ASIO engaged in a two-year investigation to find the source.
During the $1.5 million operation, telecommunications providers were forced to hand over information on at least 77,000 phone calls as well as internet and mobile phone data. The whistleblower was never found, but the operation illustrated the extent to which ASIO could investigate Australians with limited oversight.
From my own experience, it's not just ASIO that lacks accountability. I contacted SAPOL about the incident and I was repeatedly told that my experience on January 17 was probably a hoax. I also contacted SAPOL's Intelligence, and was again told that the incident was probably a hoax.
On January 19 I reported the man to the police, as advised by SAPOL.
The next day, two SAPOL intelligence officers visited me at home. This time, I was given badge numbers, and even first names. Again, I was assured that my incident was most likely a hoax. However, after a lengthy conversation, the two officers left, saying that they may need to follow up some “leads”.
They returned a day later and admitted that the man in the coffee shop was, in fact, a SAPOL officer. If I had taken them up on their offer, I would have been monitoring a registered political party, Socialist Alliance, as well as a number of community groups — all which campaign on legitimate issues ranging from clean energy to refugee rights.
The activities of these community groups are completely legal, and people involved in them should not have to be subjected to police monitoring.
The constant expansion of the capabilities of not only ASIO, but also state and federal police to monitor the Australian public means that incidents like this are only going to become more common. At the end of last year, further proposals to expand the surveillance state were put on the back burner, pending this year's federal election.
In a rare interview with ABC radio’s Background Briefing last October, ASIO's director-general David Irvine made it clear that his agency will continue to push for greater influence. He wants all telecommunications companies to store all customer phone and internet data for two years, allow that information to be available to ASIO without a warrant, and for ASIO officers to be free to commit crimes without charge.
In other words, more freedom for law enforcement, but with dramatically less accountability.