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Elisabeth Lopez
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Department: 
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The University of Melbourne is holding its first ever “Snitch Hunt” on Saturday — World Human Rights Day — to show just how Australia’s new metadata laws have scuppered notions of privacy and made it a doddle to flush out whistleblowers.

 

People of all ages, backgrounds and technical skills ranging from zero to peak nerd, will be pitted against each other in a kind of cyber fox hunt (only no actual animals, whistleblowers or journalists will be harmed). 

Co-Organiser Dr Suelette Dreyfus, who researches the effects of digital technologies on whistleblowing and privacy at the University’s Department of Computing and Information Systems, said the event will drag (and click) ‘dobbing’ into the Web 2.0 era.

 “Armed with nothing more sophisticated than a desktop computer, each team will play the role of intelligence analysts hired by police to go through a journalist’s metadata to hunt down a hypothetical whistleblower,” Dr Dreyfus said.

The event is for people who “want to get a taste of the power of metadata surveillance, while having fun competing against others to see who can best abuse it,” she said.

 There are adult teams and even a group of 10-14 year olds under the moniker Clever Girls.

The contest was inspired by Australia’s October 2015 metadata laws, under which police and government can scrutinise citizens’ metadata — the digital trail or “breadcrumbs” from phone calls and emails (though not the actual content of these communications).

Service providers must retain metadata for two years and make it available to 22 organisations, with 61 more vying for access. Federal Government departments that are not allowed to access the metadata have been trying to work around the restrictions by requesting the AFP to do searches for them.

 “Collecting metadata is a type of mass surveillance. Government is using these breadcrumbs of metadata to hunt down legitimate whistleblowers, which has a chilling effect on the whole community,” Dr Dreyfus said.

The Snitch Hunt is co-sponsored by partners ThoughtWorks, CryptoParty Sydney, the Platypus Initiative, Hack for Privacy, Blueprint for Free Speech, Digital Rights Watch and Electronic Frontiers Australia.