Police attack activist right to privacy

Crowd of people holding banner reading Australia is built to exploit!! No plunder down under #BlockadeAustralia

In an Australian first, police and magistrates have set bail conditions which stop activists from using “encrypted communication” including applications such as Signal, WhatsApp and Telegram. They also demanded that activist provide their passwords and access to all devices.

Blockade Australia, a climate activist group, has seen state repression unlike anything seen for protest movements in Australia. Along with unprecedented “encrypted communication” bail conditions, they received anti-association orders normally reserved for organised drug trafficking groups and major surveillance operation vastly out of proportion with a protest that intended to block roads in the Sydney CBD over a week of protests.

In our interconnected world, almost every electronic communication method we use, uses some form of encryption. Our mobile phones, connecting to cell towers or WiFi networks encrypt almost everything that travels over the air, so that others can not easily eaves drop on our communications. When we use an internet browser, the vast majority of information to and from the browser is encrypted. In Australia, most landline phones now go through the NBN broadband network and are also encrypted. If we are looking for a form of electronic communication that is not encrypted, we may have to get out our old CB or Ham radios.

So when bail conditions handed down to activists said:

defendant is prohibited from possessing or having access to an encrypted communication device and/or possessing an encrypted application/media application — for example, but not limited to the applications known as WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Wickr, Confide etc.

they might legitimately wonder how broad these requirements are. Can they for example, answer a phone call. I mean even if they live in areas that the NBN hasn’t reached yet and have a phone connected directly to our old analogue copper wire network, whose to say that the person at the other end of the line is not on a digital phone, running on the NBN network and sending encrypted communications back to a server. Can they own a mobile phone, because that is certainly an “encrypted communication device”.

But it seems that the intent of this of this bail condition was to say — no communications systems or applications that can not be intercepted by police. Just to make this point clearer, the “defendant” can most definitely have a mobile phone as the bail condition also sets out:

The defendant is prohibited from possessing more than one mobile telephone.

So at first glance, the aim of the bail conditions is to allow police to electronically surveil activists and certain messaging apps do not allow them to do this.

Further reading though, the conditions state:

The defendant is to produce to police the details of the subscription service and mobile phone number of the nominated mobile telephone.
….
For the purposes of compliance, the defendant is to produce any device on request by police, including any passwords and/or processes attached to the device and/or application to allow access and to check compliance with this bail condition.

This combined with the fact that police have raided multiple camps and even group picnics that Blockade Australia ran, seized phones from a wide range of activists, and issued wide ranging non-association orders, it sounds like part of a general campaign of intimidation. Making every effort to disrupt the connections built between a tight knit group of friends and activists. It allows police to continue to harass them in the months or even years that these bail conditions might stay in effect. It allows police potentially full access to their digital life without any need for a warrant.

These bail conditions have already been upheld in magistrates court. This should be a concern for all of us not just those in Blockade Australia.

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Shae

Privacy and crypto geek. Perennial student. IT professional.