Be Careful What You Google

This would be disturbing if it wasn’t so farcical.

Be careful what you Google. That was the clear message after a New York couple received an unwelcome visit from counterterrorism authorities.

Blogger and journalist Michele Catalano was Googling pressure cookers. Yep. Pressure cookers. She wanted a pressure cooker to (wait for it) cook quinoa. For those who might not know what that it is, Quinoa is a South American grain you can purchase in a health food shop. It was a harmless Google search.

Next, her husband was using the same computer to search for backpacks. He needed a backpack. Don’t we all from time to time. Again it was a harmless Google search.

The couple’s 20 year old son was also on the computer. After reading about the Boston bombings he was clicking on links about home-made bombs. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. It was harmless curiosity.

But unfortunately there is no such thing as harmless anything any more. Not in the days of terrorism and counter terrorism. And especially not if it leads to authorities concluding that someone might be trying to manufacture a home made bomb.

Now apparently unbeknown to the Catalanos someone, somewhere in authority was putting all of this Google searching together and came to the conclusion that this family represented enough of a threat to warrant a visit.

Around 9 am one morning the family answered a knock on the front door. We are talking black ops. Six men in three black SUVs pulled up and surrounded the house.

Like I said they knocked. This time. As opposed to kicking the door down. Michele’s husband let them in. They searched and after not a long time they left.. Clearly convinced that the couple’s home was one of 99 percent of cases where there was no threat.

And that was that. Except it wasn’t. Because a lot of people are now asking how does the Government know what people are Googling?

It has already been pointed out elsewhere, that this question suddenly has great relevance given the case of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden who has been granted temporary asylum in Russia. One of the disclosures revealed by Snowden was details of an American intelligence programme that monitors internet activity.

Michele Catalano has since learned that authorities also monitored topics her husband  looked at on his work computer.

She has no idea which counterterrorism group visited her home. They apparently did not identify themselves.

The U.S. website Atlantic Wire tried to get to the bottom of who these spooks might have been without any success. They were not the FBI or the local police.

One thing’s for sure they  were not foodies. They had no idea what Quinoa was.

Australia’s Draconian Laws

One of the cornerstones of any healthy democracy must be free speech and freedom of the press.

But it seems not in Australia and not anymore. The Abbott Government is charting a course that’s hellbent on stifling both. And, if you are looking for a reason you need go no further than Julian Assange, Wikileaks and Edward Snowden.

They are almost certainly responsible for a set of leaked documents floating around  that appear to suggest corruption involving Australia and some senior Asian politicians. I say appears to be, because the documents have been the subject of a Victorian Supreme Court  gagging order so we don’t really know what’s in them.

But whatever it is the mere public mention of them was enough for the Indonesian President to demand yet another please explain from the Australian Government. And clearly, the Government has had enough of doing embarrassing explanations and apologies to the Indonesians.

Especially after the Snowden revelation that proved Australian spy agencies were listening in on the private telephone conversations of the Indonesian President and his wife.

So now, what the Abbott Government wants to do is well and truly shoot the messenger.

The Government has legislation before parliament that threatens Australian Security Intelligence Organisation leakers with 10 years’ imprisonment.

It also makes it an offence for journalists to report on information they receive from whistleblowers.

Edward Snowden’s lawyer has quite correctly labelled this as “draconian” and “chilling” because it will ‘criminalise a reporter talking to a source.”

Lawyer Jesselyn Radack said : “It’s the most draconian thing I’ve seen and it is completely antithetical to a free and open democratic society … I find it very disturbing that Australia’s entertaining this kind of legislation and that there hasn’t been a greater outcry, especially from the press.”

So what does this legislation actually do?

For a start you will be breaking the law if a person “discloses information … [that] relates to a special intelligence operation.”

And there are no exemptions, meaning it could apply to anyone including journalists, bloggers, lawyers and other members of the public. Anyone who discloses this kind of information faces tough new penalties of up to 10 years’ jail.

Ms Radack makes a crucial point in saying the new laws will essentially give ASIO, the Australian equivalent of the CIA, blanket immunity.

“This particular proposed legislation is drafted so broadly that almost anything could be labelled a special intelligence operation … the definitions are so broad and vague as to make anyone subject to this.”

Former US National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas Drake, who fought the United States Government and won said these proposed laws would result in self-censorship.

“If this passes in its current form without huge changes, it is going to send a very chilling message,” Mr Drake said. “It will create a climate in which people will self-censor. They will opt not to reveal anything. They will opt not to associate with certain individuals. They will opt not to share certain information just on the risk that it might be designated secret or it might be designated something that might reveal an intelligence operation. Well in that kind of an environment guess what? It has its intended effect.”

Australia’s Federal Attorney-General Senator George Brandis has previously said that the new offences were not aimed at journalists.

“It’s not the purpose of this bill to place any constraints at all on freedom of discussion,” he said.

“We are a government that believes very strongly in freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”

Yeah. Right.