“TRUST US” on metadata retention has a hollow ring for whistleblowers

April 3rd, 2015  |  Published in Power & Politics


BEING A WHISTLEBLOWER IS ALWAYS A HARD CALL, and “trust us” messages from politicians about protection of journalists’ sources under new metadata retention laws (which require internet service providers to store all metadata for two years) offer little comfort. Quite apart from the dubious plausibility of such assurances, the creeping whistle1climate of brooding mass surveillance adds another layer of intimidation to an already precarious undertaking.

Metadata retention laws are being framed as making us safer from criminals and terrorists, and have bipartisan support. But they will have the effect of making us less safe from abuses of power by governments, institutions, and organisations. Reporting such abuse is already unrewarding, and is about to become even more precarious.

A couple of recent examples that predate the new laws can help make the point

Asylum seekers on Nauru

Employees of Save the Children Australia ran afoul of Scott Morrison, then minister for immigration, while working in the offshore detention centre on Nauru. Asylum seekers on the island were shown an official video in which they were told they would never bewhistle9 resettled in Australia. They were (unsurprisingly) distressed and some, including children, became self-harming and suicidal.

Morrison’s response was to scapegoat staff, and ten were ordered back to the mainland on the pretext they were facilitating protests and passing confidential information off the island.

According to Paul Ronalds, CEO of Save the Children Australia, these staff were some of the best social workers and teachers in the country and “the idea that they could do anything to put children in harm’s way is absurd” (click here).

The Moss Report on Nauru, instigated by the government, cleared these staff on the allegations of incitement and did not make anything much of the assertions about “confidential information”. We are not told the content of this purportedly “confidential information” (it would then no longer be “confidential”) but I do note that it has been important to Morrison to restrict public information about the appalling situation on the island.

Last heard, these staff were mounting legal action against the government. I wish them well. Their boss thinks they are owed an apology. I agree, but was not surprised that Morrison declined the invitation.

People with disabilities

The second example comes from mainland Australia and involves people with disabilities in care facilities run by Yooralla – the largest service provider in the sector, receiving $70 million per year in state government funding. Serious and long term sexual abuse of residents came to public attention through the media (click here and here).

The abuse had previously been reported within the organisation by a victim who, for her abuse3pain, was “chastised” and told her allegations could not be substantiated. She was subsequently sent gifts (including holiday vouchers and flowers) from head office.

The organisation attempted to cover up the abuse and protect its own interests.

An employee thwarted these plans by going to the media; the situation became public, and the whistleblower was then charged with unauthorised access to Yooralla’s database. He subsequently escaped conviction by agreeing to attend a program for first-offenders, which requires acknowledgement of the offence.

Needless to say this whistleblower lost his job, and his future prospects are unlikely to be enhanced by the label of ‘troublemaker’. Could the situation have been worse for him under the new laws? Perhaps not – he was identified in other ways – but another person in a similar position might in future feel too exposed to take action.

Confidentiality agreement

“Disclosure of confidential information” – so convenient

In both these examples, the assertion of “disclosure of confidential information” is a gold mine for those in power. It precludes questions about the nature of the information disclosed, and allows those in authority to decline from comment – on the grounds of the confidential nature of the material itself, and also of the investigation process.

This leads to the situation where a whistleblower, once identified, has no real defence.

Whistleblowers – a threatened species

Organisations and institutions already use whatever tactics they have at hand to protect their interests, and frequently seem ruthless in making their choices: innuendo, threats, character assassination, and/or vague and uncheckable allusions to breaches of confidentiality which are impossible to challenge.

The effect of the new laws will be to make it more difficult for whistleblowers to remain anonymous, currently their main hope of safety. Whistleblowers potentially do a huge service to individuals and communities, but it’s not a role for the faint-hearted, and mass surveillance is unlikely to increase the pool of candidates.

Whistleblowers are a threatened species under metadata retention laws and the broader community will pay the price.


Scroll down to leave your comments…always valued…Joan Beckwith

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