The Queensland Police Service’s heavy-handed approach towards a journalist trying to do his job should ring alarm bells for the media sector and anyone interested in how the law applies to the internet.

Fairfax deputy technology editor Ben Grubb was arrested on Tuesday afternoon after he published a story covering a presentation made by security expert Christian Heinrich at an IT security conference.

To prove his point and expose a Facebook privacy vulnerability, Heinrich cheekily lifted a photo from the private Facebook profile of the wife of a rival security expert.

As Grubb explains in his his version of events, it made for a good story.

Actually it’s the kind of story that can fall into a journalist’s lap at any hacking conference, where live hacking is commonplace, and attendees would be seriously disappointed if at least one hack didn’t attract headlines. In this case it wasn’t a particularly groundbreaking hack, but combine it with a bit of conflict, one man publishing the private photo of a rival’s wife, and you have a recipe for clicks.

The Queensland Police were unamused, and after questioning Grubb decided to arrest him when it became clear he would not willingly give up his iPad, which they wished to confiscate, as if to make an example of him.

Detective Superintendent Brian Hay says a culture of hacking competition has built up at conferences around the world, and crimes may well have been committed at those events.

“It’s probably quite sad, really, that we may have people out there that think it’s their right to just go in, and it’s a game, and it’s not serious,” Hay says.

Well yes, Detective Hay, that’s kind of the point. What’s less common is the attendees at such conferences, which typically include law enforcement professionals, turning what is meant to be an opportunity for education and security advancement into a witch-hunt.

Hay says the investigation was in response to a specific complaint about the presentation, and in particular the obtaining of the private picture.

The transcript published by Fairfax of the police interview with Grubb reveals it was in fact Chris Gatford, the security professional who’s wife had her photo published without permission, that made the complaint.

Fairfax’s decision to publish said picture is probably the most questionable action of the day, but Fairfax is not on trial here. Grubb says his employer sought legal advice on publishing the photo.

In trying to justify the Queensland Police decision to question Grubb, Detective Hay likened the activity to someone accepting a TV when they know it to be stolen.

Yet it would be hard to imagine any law enforcement agency responding with such haste and vigour to an everyday complaint from someone complaining their Facebook photos had been stolen.

Does the Queensland Police not have more pressing issues to focus on?

The transcript of Grubb’s conversation with the Queensland Police officers gives real insight into why journalists should be concerned about the Police Powers and Responsibilities Act, and should as a matter of practice encrypt any source data on the devices they use for work.

It also shows the real lack of technology knowledge within the police force. At one point during the questioning, one of the officers asked Grubb to pardon his “lack of technology” and after being asked a range of technical questions about how Facebook works, Grubb was then left to essentially tell the officer it was not up to him to make his case for him.

Grubb was faced with a series of leading questions, which ultimately resulted in him betraying his source. Asked how The Sydney Morning Herald came to be in possession of the photo, Grubb replied “Christian gave it to us.” He then went on to add that the photo was presented publicly in front of 30 people. But the damage was already done.

When he realised where the conversation was going Grubb said he did not wish to provide a copy of the photo, but admitted he had kept notes of his conversation with Heinrich on his iPad. This gave the police the grounds they needed to seize the iPad, and when Grubb refused to hand it over, make an arrest.

At the beginning of the interview, Grubb was offered the option to remain silent. He should have taken it.

*This article was originally published at Technology Spectator

Peter Fray

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