The Australian Federal Police has raided the home of senior News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst over a 2018 report of a possible on-shore role for the Australian Signals Directorate
The Daily Telegraph said that the raid was in response to an April 2018 story it published that claimed the Department of Defence and Department of Home Affairs were contemplating a proposal that would have given the ASD a role in tackling domestic cyber crime.
In May 2018 the ABC reported that a proposed restructure of the agency would empower it to target on-shore systems used by criminals as well as conduct penetration tests on Australian businesses.
In mid-2017, the government announced that for the first time it had authorised the ASD to employ its offensive cyber capabilities to target “organised offshore cyber criminal networks”
Smethurst’s 2018 story included images of correspondence between Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo and Defence secretary Greg Moriarty.
In a statement, the AFP said it executed a search warrant at a home in the ACT suburb of Kingston.
“The matter relates to an investigation into the alleged unauthorised disclosure of national security information that was referred to the AFP,” the statement said. “Police will allege the unauthorised disclosure of these specific documents undermines Australia’s national security.”
“No arrests are expected today as a result of this activity,” the AFP said.
In an updated statement the AFP said that the warrant “relates to the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret, which is an extremely serious matter that has the potential to undermine Australia’s national security.”
The Daily Telegraph said the AFP warrant allowed them authority to the journalist’s “home, computer and mobile phone.”
“This raid demonstrates a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths,” a News Corp Australia spokesperson said.
The raid was “outrageous and heavy handed” and “will chill public interest reporting,” the spokesperson said.
“Yet again, we have an example of a government aiming to punish those who have brought to light vital information,” said Marcus Strom, president of journalists' union MEAA Media.
“Australians are entitled to know what their governments do in their name. That clearly includes plans by government agencies to digitally spy on Australians by hacking into our emails, bank accounts and text messages.”
“It is an outrage that more than a year after the story was reported in April 2018 but just days after the federal election result, the Federal Police are now raiding a journalist’s home in order to seize documents, computers and a mobile phone in order to track down the source,” Strom said.
“It's incredibly worrying to see AFP officers carry out a raid on the home of a political journalist working to reveal an important public interest issue — a potential massive expansion of domestic capacity in Australian spy agencies,” said Tim Singleton Norton, the chair of Digital Rights Watch.
“We fear that the powers given to the AFP to seize and search Annika Smethurst's digital footprint represent a considerable risk to bold Australians who choose to expose wrongdoing in the public services.”
“This is a gross abuse of national security powers — using them to reinforce a culture of secrecy and lack of accountability in our law enforcement apparatus,” Singleton Norton said.
“It’s an obviously an attempt to bully and intimidate journalists reporting on the latest attempted power grab by the already over-powerful Department of Home Affairs,” said Electronic Frontiers Australia board member Justin Warren.
“This kind of authoritarian posturing has no place in Australian society. It should be condemned by everyone who values a free society,” Warren told Computerworld.
Warren said there were clear indications that a Labor government would have broken up the Department of Home Affairs, “so this looks very much like [home affairs minister] Peter Dutton and Michael Pezzullo attempting to consolidate power”.
“That kind of behaviour should frighten every journalist in Australia and in fact everyone who has seen the way authoritarian regimes take hold elsewhere in the world,” he said.