The revelation by ASIO in an estimates hearing earlier this week that it had obtained a “small number” of journalist information warrants to access the metadata of a working journalist was only news because the Attorney-General’s Department annual report for 2015-2016 on what its spy agencies get up to with metadata has yet to be released. The report is notionally usually released by November but as of March, the department is still keeping the reports under wraps, almost nine months after the reporting period. In response to questions from Crikey yesterday, the department reiterated previous statements in January given to tech publications that the department was taking more time to review the report before making it public to ensure “data integrity” with what agencies were now required to report under the new data retention regime.

This includes statistics on the number of warrants handed to agencies like ASIO or the Australian Federal Police to go sniffing through the metadata of journalists to chase their sources. The Australian Federal Police has also been reluctant to say whether or not it has obtained journalist metadata (for say, investigating leaks from NBN, or the defence white paper) too. Senator Nick Xenophon — who asked ASIO in estimates about the matter — told Crikey that he didn’t understand why ASIO would refuse to disclose the number of warrants issued.

“People can read the Hansard and make up their own mind. I just don’t understand how on earth can it compromise national security just to know how many journalist information warrants have been issued.”

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey