How much surveillance should society have to endure in the interests of maintaining its values and structures, and who watches the watchers?
As the Australian information community contemplates the Walsh Report, now published online despite the Government's best efforts to keep it secret, expatriate Geoffrey Robertson has offered a timely reminder that sometimes, it's the security services themselves that most need watching.
In 1977, English Time Out reporter Crispin Aubrey, ex-soldier John Berry and telecom-whizz-kid-turned freelance journalist Duncan Campbell were arrested for talking to each other in a London flat.
Hardly dangerous terrorists, these three young men had the full weight of the law thrown at them after they considered preparing an article for Times Out about the work of Signals Intelligence (SIGINT).
As Robertson details in his just-released book The Justice Game, the so-called ABC case' involved a gross abuse of power by the security services, who were more interested in protecting their own vested interests than in national security.
At that time the system of D' notices ensured SIGINT's activities remained largely secret in Britain thanks to the cowardice of British editors, but they had been widely written about abroad. In this light, the behaviour of the British security services in first arresting the three young men, and then pursuing them through the justice system, makes for disturbing reading.
Former Australian Security Intelligence Organisation deputy director Gerard Walsh prepared the "Review of Policy relating to Encryption Technologies", for the Federal Attorney General's Department in late 1996. The Department initially suppressed the report, then released a censored version under pressure.
Walsh's report recommends empowering police, ASIO and the National Crime Authority to alter software so that PCs could become covert listening devices, and changes to the Commonwealth Crimes Act to allow police and government investigators to hack into computer systems for evidence.
In a democratic society, citizens should be entitled to debate the amount and types of surveillance they are prepared to accept. That means that national security must only be conducted in the interests of society and under the open scrutiny of that society's citizens.
Yet the secret services typically do everything they can to avoid such scrutiny in the name of national security. Even the briefest comparison between the censored version of the report released in 1997 and the uncensored version released by EFA last month highlights an obsessively secretive mindset amongst our own government officials and intelligence services. Included amongst the facts the officials deemed necessary to suppress were such startling allegations as "Criminals . . . may be expected to generate their own key materials" and "Encryption is a problem for law enforcement".
Presumably, such matters had to be kept secret to protect national security. Move over Aubrey, Berry and Campbell. The bureaucratic and political paranoia about cryptography highlighted by the Walsh imbroglio suggest little has changed in the last 20 years, and the need for society to fight unjust invasions of its privacy remains as strong as ever.
Sue Bushell is a Canberra-basedpolitical correspondent