One of the protections ostensibly provided against the chilling effect of data retention laws on whistleblowers and journalistic sources was supposed to be the “journalism information warrant”, a legislated requirement that if authorities want to identify a journalist’s sources using metadata they need a special “journalist information warrant” to be issued under a complex and highly secret process; if a journalist found out she was being targeted for such a warrant, she wouldn’t be allowed to tell anyone, at risk of being jailed.

Anyway, with a large number of Australian Federal Police investigations into the colander-like leaking of this government to the media (including, most controversially, the revelation of highly embarrassing information about NBN Co’s disastrous planning, demanded by a humiliated Ziggy Switkowski, for which Parliament House email servers were “raided” by police), just how many warrants have police sought? After the AFP previously evaded such a question from Nick Xenophon earlier in the year, he put them on the spot in an estimates hearing this morning, and they ‘fessed up: there had been no journalism information warrants sought by the AFP.

So — good news? Hardly. In fact, the warrants are trivially easy to circumvent — if you want to find out who leaked to a journalist, you don’t obtain the journalist’s metadata, you get the metadata of every public servant who might have known the information that was leaked, and work backwards from there. There’s no requirement to get a journalism information warrant if you’re not seeking a journalist’s metadata — even if you’re trying to work out who a journo’s source is. No wonder the AFP hasn’t bothered with the cumbersome process of getting a special warrant.

Peter Fray

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