RoLIA’s Education Coordinator, Nick Clark, recently participated in a panel discussion on surveillance and encryption at the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia (JERAA) annual conference at the University of Technology, Sydney.

The panel also featured Paul Farrell from The Guardian and Richard Chirgwin from The Register, discussing some of the key issues for journalists in navigating the legal and ethical minefield of investigative journalism in the age of ‘metadata’.

Nick Clark and Paul Farrell

From left: Paul Farrell, The Guardian, Nick Clark, RoLIA Education Coordinator.

Nick began the session by outlining some of RoLIA’s submissions to the Senate on the use of search warrants and surveillance powers, and the way legal processes can pose a threat to the activities of journalists. He addressed the tension between the power of the state and the rights of the individual, and the importance of careful scrutiny of laws which affect people’s freedoms:

“Often a slight change in language of a law can have a huge effect on what law enforcement can do. Unintended consequences from hastily constructed laws can have real and tangible effects on peoples’ rights and freedoms.”

Paul Farrell followed and discussed the risks that journalists face when confronted with surveillance regimes within Australia and globally. He commented on the range of agencies which can currently “self-authorise” access to metadata, such as law enforcement agencies, local councils and the RSPCA, and highlighted that there was no judicial oversight of the process.

Richard Chirgwin outlined the difficulties of remaining anonymous and encrypted on the internet and mentioned examples of telecommunications companies removing encryption from certain internet services:

“Everything that journalists can do to counter the lack of anonymity on the internet is really chewing-gum and duct tape and not really effective…the conviction that you are safe [from surveillance] when you are not, is dangerous.”

The audience of journalists and academics were very engaged in the discussion, which focused on tools that journalists can use to avoid surveillance, the ethics of keeping sources and their information confidential and the importance of protecting whistleblowers and the journalists that report on the information they provide.

Nick also contributed the following to the discussion with reference to the tension between the usefulness of surveillance powers and the rights of individuals:

“Metadata has been valuable in several high profile murder investigations lately – there is no doubt it is a useful tool for law enforcement…Law Enforcement typically go to great lengths to be accountable, though there are some areas where reporting on the use of powers should be improved…transparency inspires confidence in the system.”

When asked his opinion about how the legal profession and judges see the increase in surveillance powers, Nick replied:

“I think lawyers and judges should be concerned about any laws which give government uncontrolled power.”

He concluded that powers which are too broadly defined, without care for possible unintended consequences, are harmful to the rule of law, and that proper scrutiny by Parliament is essential. If there’s a consequence, unintended or otherwise that prevents journalists from doing their job it should be addressed.