Dumb and dumber: Media circus meets police thuggery at AusCERT

Ben Grubb's iPad should not have been seized...

The publication of allegedly stolen, private photographs by Fairfax Online was eclipsed in stupidity only by the QLD Police Service's decision to seize the iPad of journalist Ben Grubb at the AusCERT conference on Tuesday.

Every time the coppers raid media organisations to seize computers and documents in order to track down, say, the source of an embarrassing political leak, it pisses me off something awful.

The lack of respect shown to the media and its sources by governments in this country, both state and federal, is pretty astonishing.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) actually investigates public service leaks that harm nothing more than the incumbent's polling figures. It's ridiculous. A media that operates freely of this sort of intimidation is vital to maintaining a healthy democracy.

As for the Ben Grubb incident, it's my view that police should simply not have the powers at their disposal that enabled them to seize his iPad in connection with an investigation into the alleged theft of private photos from a Facebook account.

Background on that is here if you need it.

Despite the fact there's an argument brewing about whether QLD Police actually acted within the law in seizing Ben's gadget, the action, in my view, was categorically the wrong thing for the police to do.

Some of you out there on teh Twitters got up me yesterday over my failure to discuss the media freedom aspect of this whole AusCERT-gate thingamajig.

I didn't bother because the police were just acting like police. The whole thing was just so predictable. It's what happens in any jurisdiction that hasn't passed shield laws.

In this instance, it seems likely the intention of the officers in seizing the device was to obtain evidence to use against another individual. In fact, the coppers likely knew the evidence was on the iPad because Ben may have showed it to them himself! It's not explicitly stated in his piece, but you get the impression it's possible he pulled up some correspondence on his tablet.

It's likely that when they realised that a treasure-trove of evidence was likely stored on the iPad (correspondence between Ben and his source pertaining to a security conference presentation that may have crossed a few lines), they asked Ben to surrender it and he refused.

That's when they arrested him in a meeting room at AusCERT for a short time and seized his iPad.

The police claim they were within their rights to seize the iPad because it had allegedly stolen photos on it; tainted goods.

It's a clumsy argument, but it's a great example of coppers doing what coppers do -- taking the shortest path from A to B. Should they be allowed to do that? Absolutely not. Can you understand why they did? Absolutely!

It's also a bit difficult to defend Fairfax chose to publish allegedly stolen private photos. It gets REALLY difficult to defend Fairfax when you find out that the subject of the allegedly stolen photo contacted the editorial team and asked them to remove the private photo and they refused.

I know this because the subject of the photo told me.

It gets IMPOSSIBLE to defend Fairfax when we hear its justification for publishing the photos: It had legal advice that as the photos were published "on the Internet" they were fair game, regardless of whether they were posted to a private photo album on Facebook.

(NOTE: It's possible that the image in question was obtained by Fairfax via a Facebook Content Distribution Network URL that had been brute-forced during the research done during for Sunday's presentation. Technically that would mean the image was "on the Internet" and available without authentication, so probably fair game legally, but ethical questions remain.)

Legal advice aside, I'm amazed they didn't realise what 24-karat knobs they were being. Needlessly publishing private material is just a really shitty thing to do. One of the photos featured the subject and his young child. Sure, they blurred the child's face, but it was a private photo.

To keep the photos up there AFTER the subject and owner of the image copyright has asked you to remove it is tabloid asshattery at its most extreme. Sure, they cropped out the kid after an angry phone call, but they left the allegedly private picture identifying the subject up.

So are the laws that allowed the coppers to seize Ben's iPad daft? Yes. Were the coppers themselves acting like supreme dopes when they briefly detained Ben? Yes.

But really, if you had the ringside view I did when this whole thing played out, you'd find it a bit tough to muster up much sympathy for Fairfax and its now iPadless journalist Ben Grubb.

The nice side affect of the big hoo-ha is it's brought up a debate on press freedom in Australia. If anything, this whole episode will nudge proposed shield laws along quite nicely.

We need those shield laws to pass to prevent this sort of idiocy.

So to end with the same summary that accompanied yesterday's piece: Meh.