9th July 2019
Federal police have accessed metadata from journalists’ phones almost 60 times within a year, adding to a debate about balancing national security and media freedom.
- Police can access a journalist’s metadata as part of crime or national security investigation
- Metadata has been accessed 58 times in just 12 months
- Warrants have been issues for two journalists, indicating multipoint data points were accessed
Domestic intelligence and police agencies can be granted access to the metadata during investigations, as the information may reveal the source of a leak or the whereabouts of a wanted person.
It remains unclear which journalists were targeted and why the information was sought.
Legislation from 2015 forces telecommunication companies to hold internet and phone records for up to two years so the information can be accessed as part of criminal investigations.
Law enforcement agencies are also required to get a warrant to access a journalist’s information and disclose how many times metadata was accessed, to allay concerns about any potential overreach.
During debate over the laws, then attorney-general George Brandis repeatedly stumbled over the definition of metadata in a Sky News interview.
Parliament’s powerful intelligence and security committee is currently examining the impact of the legislation.
Police records reveal only two journalist information warrants were issued to the agency in the 2017 and 2018 financial year, indicating the 58 metadata requests focussed on just a couple of journalists.
The legislation included a requirement for agencies to report how many times they had accessed journalist data.
The AFP accessed the metadata of people suspected to be involved in drug offences 8,200 times in the same financial year, and terrorism suspects on 1,627 occasions.
National security laws to be reviewed
This access is likely to highlight a tension between national security laws and freedom of the media, which will be soon be examined by the same committee undertaking the legislative review.
It follows Australian Federal Police (AFP) raids on the home of Canberra-based News Corp political reporter Annika Smethurst and the ABC headquarters in Sydney over two separate stories.
Both media organisations are taking their fights to court, in a bid to stop the AFP using information seized in the raids.
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The Federal Opposition, crossbench senators and media outlets have criticised giving the task of reviewing whether there are appropriate legislative protections for the media and whistle-blowers to the same committee responsible for reviewing the national security laws that are now the cause of concern.
They had wanted a separate committee established.
Labor has also demanded the Government respond to reports the Australian Federal Police examined the private travel arrangements of a senior ABC journalist, as part of its investigation into a national security leak.
On Monday, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age reported the AFP seized the travel details of the ABC’s Dan Oakes, who was one of two journalists who broke the story known as the Afghan Files.
The story revealed allegations of unlawful killings by Australian special forces in Afghanistan and led to an AFP raid on the ABC’s headquarters last month.