By Ryan Mallett-Outtrim
‘This must all seem a bit surreal to you,’ the police officer said. Surreal wasn’t exactly what I was thinking. Seeing my first cluster bomb was surreal. Having half a dozen AK-47s pointed at my head (last year, in Algeria), was pretty surreal.
But being asked to monitor law abiding citizens? Ridiculous seemed more appropriate.
He looked barely older than me. He wore a business suit and sported a short, gelled hairstyle that was all the rage when I was in high school. Polite yet casual, he seemed like a cross between a used-car salesman and an intern mortgage-broker. Of course, he was neither.
He seemed to know everything about me. My address, political views and even how to pronounce my surname. Heck, given that they were waiting for me in my favourite coffee shop, I’m guessing they could have ordered lunch for me.
After watching me slurp a latte for a few minutes, he approached my table.
I tried to sound like I knew what was going on. Eyeing him down lone ranger style, I asked, ‘Who wants to know?’
He took that as an invitation to sit down, and laid out a proposition. He explained that he worked with the police and the deal was that I fed him information on community groups, political organisations and activist networks that I’m involved with. In exchange, I would get … well, nothing. At times it sounded like a lousy business venture, but a few times he made it sound like I would be providing a public service—a bit like jury duty perhaps.
This police officer wanted me to monitor ordinary people. I would be reporting on the activities of community groups with legitimate concerns like clean water, renewable energy, human rights and poverty. This would mean deceiving my friends and family just so that police could secretly keep tabs on them.
‘Look, I know activists aren’t criminals,’ he said, finishing his coffee. He explained how he sympathised with some of my views and respected my rights. He also confessed that from time to time, police and security have abused the trust granted to them by the public. In particular, he cited police behaviour at the Lizard’s Revenge action at Olympic Dam last year.
However, he gave me no details of who he was, or where the information I gave him would end up. When I asked for whom he worked, he just repeated the line, ‘security and intelligence’. For readers who have never heard this—‘security and intelligence’ is the default response to cover classified operations.
‘Right,’ I said, chuckling. ‘The Department of Security and Intelligence? And, let me guess, you work in the Division of Security and Intelligence?’
He fidgeted awkwardly.
‘Well, how about I give you my number…’ he trailed off as he reached into his pocket. ‘Actually, you’ll probably just lose it, right?’
Guessing I’d made my position clear, I nodded.
Without any form of identification, this officer could have been nothing more than an invasive con artist or a schizophrenic with a penchant for James Bond movies. I have been involved in numerous environmental and social justice campaigns, but I’m hardly a big wheel—not exactly the best guy to lean on for information. At the time, it was impossible for me to tell whether my spook was really ‘security and intelligence’, or just a garden-variety fruit-loop.
It took three days for SAPOL to admit that the incident was genuine. Suspecting that someone had tried to con me, I actually reported the undercover officer to police. I was repeatedly told by that my experience did not sound credible and that it was probably a hoax. After badgering SAPOL for days, and being visited twice by intelligence agents at home, my fears that I was being stalked by some kind of lunatic were finally put to rest.
I’m still not entirely sure why it took so long for SAPOL to inform me that I had been targeted for recruitment. Of course, I’m not sure why the undercover officer didn’t identify himself in the first place, rather than leave me to validate his claims on my own. Nor do I know for certain why I was even targeted in the first place. I’m a non-violent activist with a clean criminal record. Information on every campaign I’m involved in is publicly available. Moreover, police officers are welcome to come along to activist meetings (they often do, anyway). One thing I do know, however, is that I’m far from the only activist to be monitored by police.
In January 2012, the Saturday Age reported that federal police and ASIO were continually monitoring Australian environmentalists. However, it does not appear that this was being done with the interests of the public good in mind. Rather, according to documents released to the Saturday Age under FOI, Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson had requested the surveillance on behalf of energy company lobbyists. Greens Senator Scott Ludlam was reported as describing the incident as ‘a deliberate abuse of the role of Australian security agencies, who have better things to do than follow the dictates of foreign coal and energy corporations’.
Unfortunately, activists like myself are not just being monitored by the police and government. Private intelligence contractors such as the National Open Source Intelligence Centre (NOSIC) make money by gathering information on Australian citizens. NOSIC scours publicly available data on individuals and groups by spying on Facebook pages, websites, media releases, emails and more. All this information is then packaged and sold to companies and governments.
During one of my numerous conversations with SAPOL, I was told that they do not ‘outsource intelligence’ to private contractors like NOSIC. Perhaps not yet, but Australian law enforcement is lagging behind that of the UK when it comes to working with private firms. In 2003, the Sunday Times reported that intelligence contractor R&CA Publications had engaged in intensive monitoring of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) on behalf of the arms manufacturer British Aerospace (now BAE Systems). According to the Sunday Times, R&CA shared information on CAAT with other security firms and the British Government. Corporate espionage against activists is so widespread in the UK that, in February 2011, The Guardian reported that senior police officers ‘privately claim that there are more corporate spies in protest groups than undercover police officers’.
Sir Hugh Orde, the president of the UK’s Association of Chief Police Officers even stated that ‘the deployment by completely uncontrolled and unrestrained players in the private sector’ constitutes a ‘massive area of concern’. While all undue monitoring of perfectly legal activities is concerning, Orde rightly pointed out that unlike police, private contractors in the UK are largely unregulated.
The situation is comparable here in Australia. Indeed, as one SAPOL officer rightly pointed out to me, companies store far more information about our everyday activities than the police ever could. Think of all the intimate knowledge of you that could be held by your phone company, internet service provider, local supermarket or insurance company, just to name a few. Does this make me feel better about the possibility that the police are watching me? Well, not exactly. As Melbourne barrister Brian Walters told the media in January 2012, Minister Ferguson’s ‘surveillance of community groups is one-sided: it is not directed at companies who break the law. There is no surveillance of boardrooms to find out what other plans they might have to use their resources to alter the political debate in Australia. Nor is it being used to detect breaches of environmental laws by these companies. It is directed against the very community which should be sovereign in a democratic system.’
When corporate lobby groups dictate police behaviour, as they did last year, they not only blur the lines between governmental and corporate interests, but threaten to undermine the ability of community groups to freely voice legitimate concerns. I still have plenty of unanswered questions about my experience, but one stands out above the rest. If I had taken up the offer, whose interests would I have served? The Australian public, or the companies that I’ve so often railed against?
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