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Freya Newman and the Hypocrisy of A Surveillance State

The woman who outed Frances Abbott's secret $60,000 scholarship may have been freed, but the government's willingness to spy on citizens and prosecute a remorseful young woman highlights its own hypocrisy.

by Girard Dorney
Nov 26 2014, 11:41pm

Image by Ben Thomson

Freya Newman is the young woman who hacked a computer and provided evidence that a daughter of Australia's Prime Minister had received a secret scholarship to the Whitehouse Institute with the aid of its chairman, a Liberal Party donor. Her sentence was handed down on Tuesday.

The magistrate, taking into account subjective factors such as Newman's motivation, level of remorse, immaturity, mental health, and good character, discharged her on the condition that she enter into a bond of good behaviour.

This doesn't mean she's gotten off: were she to breach her bond within the next two years, she could still be sentenced for the original offence. Ms Newman is unlikely to do so—she is no Edward Snowden—and nor should we expect her to be. Senior staff at the Whitehouse Institute were involved in her initial decision to hack the computer and, sometime after giving evidence of the scholarship to N​ew Matilda and retiring from her position at the institute, Newman seems to have regretted her actions. She wrote an apology to Frances Abbott and, when charged, threw herself at the mercy of the system.

The handing down of Newman's sentence would seem to be the end of the matter. Except that something stinks about how this played out. It's awkward, if not hypocritical, for a government itself neck deep in questionable surveillance practises—and hacking—to so breezily pass judgement on a citizen for equivalent behaviour.

M​​any beli​​eve Ms Newman was in the right, or that her actions constitute whistleblowing meaning she should be protected. Even the mag​​istrate accepted that "Ms Newman was motivated by a sense of injustice rather than a desire for personal notoriety, greed, or any desire to embarrass the student." However the magistrate deployed a trite, well-worn summation, concluding, "Whilst this may explain what lead up to her offending behaviour, it does not excuse her conduct."

On September 15 WikiLeaks rele​ased docu​ments revealing the NSW police had spent more than $2 million on FinSpy, malware that allows almost unlimited access to all the information on a computer or device, such as a smart phone, including recording keystrokes and turning on the microphone.

Last year, Edward Snowden released NSA documents regarding the secret surveillance program named X-Keyscore. As part of the "Fiv​e-​eyes" intelligence partnership Australia both helped collect the data of "n​early eve​rything a user does on the internet" and was allowed to access it. We also o​ffered the medical, legal, and religious information of Australian citizens to our intelligence partners.

The XKeyscore system flags users who deploy encryption, and its tr​ain​ing materials from 2008 suggest that if you cannot find a strong selector (say, an email address) for a target, you should try searching for encryption. The reasoning behind this is that those who are hiding something have something to hide. The Frances Abbott scholarship was awarded in secret, and there have b​e​en suggestions it was used to influence Tony Abbott's education policy—this would be of questionable legality. Using the government's own logic such an occurrence warrants monitoring, and possibly hacking.

Early on the morning of September 18 State and Federal police raided 16 homes in Sydney, as part of an operation to thwart a potential act of terrorism. It was Australia's largest ever counter terrorism raid. It netted one suspect. At least one of the families whose homes were raided planned on taki​ng le​gal action. It has been alleged that the mother of the household was punched in the face while trying to hold onto her bed sheets.

The raided homes that yielded no suspects have received very little attention. We forgive the police their apparently faulty surveillance because we don't want to restrain them if they are acting in the public interest—we would rather they err on the side of caution and raid the home of an innocent family than miss a guilty terrorist. Again, using that same logic, shouldn't Freya Newman be completely exonerated? Even if the scholarship she exposed does not constitute corruption it hewed so closely to the resemblance that her actions were reasonable. After all, there is no federal anti-c​orruption​ body she or the senior staff could have alerted.

In the face of this, the message sent by the prosecution of Newman in a system that doesn't allow for her legal vin​di​cation, is that only the government has the right to assess what is in the public interest. This is not an argument but an arrogation of power.

Recently Australia has passed l​a​ws that strengthen the government's spying capabilities (Parliament is also set to pass a controv​ersial data rete​ntion bill). An intelligence officer is now immune to certain forms of prosecution and is able, with a single warrant, to access and modify any computers or devices associated with a suspect. On top of this whistleblowing laws are being diluted. If an intelligence officer is inclined to blow the whistle on a special operation's questionable behaviour he or she, and the journalist they contact, better w​atc​h out.

Freya Newman's sentence is a multifaceted symbol; it was a slap on the wrist, a sign of the times, and a warning.​

Follow Girard on Twitter: ​@girarddorney