Reporters must not allow sources to get in touch using phone or email and can only rely on the post to communicate in secret, investigative TV journalist Ross Coulthart has told the annual Press Freedom dinner in Sydney.
Mr Coulthart said it was “extraordinary” how often metadata was accessed by government agencies.
Authorities could access metadata in the pursuit of a leak by a Commonwealth official even if it was prompted by was a Christmas party invitation on desk of a possible source, he said.
“The law that criminalises leaking is a pathetic, flabby catch-all joke. It forbids Commonwealth officers from disclosing ‘certain information,’ but that information doesn’t have to be stamped secret or confidential,” Mr Coulthart said.
“It simply has to be ‘any fact or document in their knowledge or possession by virtue of having been a Commonwealth officer’,” he said, quoting from the legislation. “This covers pretty much anything on their desk, including the office Christmas party invitation.”
He raised the case of CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling and The New York Times reporter James Stirling in his speech. Mr Sterling was convicted of espionage over plans the court found he leaked to Mr Risen, detailing a CIA operation to provide Iran with deliberately flawed plans for nuclear components.
The case against Mr Sterling was entirely circumstantial, relying heavily on phone records that show he spoke to Mr Risen frequently, but without any evidence as to the content of those conversations, according to reports in The New York Times.
“I suspect the metadata laws are part of an opportunistic push by our police and intelligence services to use the current national security crisis to try to shut the door on journalistic investigation into their activities,” Mr Coulthart told the audience.
Journalists must avoid all kinds of digital communication, he said, and should ask whistleblowers before they make first contact – potentially via the journalist’s website – to write a letter instead. Mr Coulthart said given how easy it is to use geolocation and track someone through their mobile phone, phones should not be taken to meetings.
He says proposed changes to the ASIO Act and newly passed metadata retention legislation could make it more likely for sources to “recklessly” steal whole databases and leak them in entirety to everyone, rather than going public as a whistleblower.
He made references to comments by former US National Security Agency general counsel Stewart Baker, who said “if you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content.”
“The bottom line is that no solution will ever be secure, unless it’s a face-to-face meeting with no digital traces for the spooks to follow,” Mr Coulthart added. “Be paranoid.”
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