The Australian Government admitted this month it pays contractors to monitor the online activities of environmental activists. It sparked predictable claims about spying and a so-called “police state,” yet is this a genuine privacy concern or a politically-motivated attack on a legitimate procedure commonly used around the world? And what does it mean for communicators and issue managers?
Documents released under Freedom of Information reveal the Australian federal police are continually monitoring anti-coal mining climate activists and other environmental groups, mainly through their websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter, to provide warning and analysis of protest action. This followed increased government concern about “issues-motivated activism” and the possibility of unlawful activity disrupting critical energy infrastructure sites.
Australian Greens Leader Bob Brown promptly launched an attack on what he called “spying on conservation groups” and an attempt to “criminalise political protest.” It might all be just a typical holiday season news media beat-up. But emotive allegations about spying threaten the legitimacy of open-source monitoring which is an important part of issue and crisis management.
Every organization potentially facing activist opposition can and should use appropriate means to better understand its critics, their plans and their agenda. Indeed, an effective issue manager would be failing in their duty not to be aware of relevant information which is publicly available. The challenge is how that information is obtained and what use is made of it.
The Australian Government disclosed it uses Melbourne intelligence contractor National Open Source Intelligence Centre, whose website says they “specialise in public order intelligence, transnational threat awareness and crime intelligence support.” The company Director told The Age: “Our analysts essentially perform a role no different to a researcher employed at a library – that is, exploring the internet for specific information or general interest items.” And he emphasised that no information is collected unlawfully or obtained at its source by clandestine or covert means.
The suggestion is that it’s no different from outsourcing media monitoring to free up internal resources. But it IS different and it exposes organizations to both real and manufactured outrage. Activists remember very well two notorious incidents in the 1990s – when the McDonalds UK Head of Security hired up to nine detectives to infiltrate a tiny London protest group involved in the famous McLibel case; and the Dutch corporate spy Paul Oosterbeek, who reportedly infiltrated 30 activist groups over eight years and persuaded them to “recycle” their waste paper, which he delivered to his bosses to scour for secrets.
Today the Internet has revolutionised and greatly simplified intelligence gathering. The only really safe option is to stay “off the grid” – with no mobile phone or internet – which supposedly helped Osama Bin Ladin remain hidden for ten years. But for most activist groups that’s impossible. The internet and social media are the essential tools which have helped level the playing field and provide them with the capacity to drive the issue agenda.
For corporate communicators and issue managers this month’s “spying” controversy is a reminder of how legitimate cyber-monitoring has increasingly complex implications. If misunderstood or misrepresented it can seriously damage reputations and inhibit freedom to manage issues. The question to ask is not just can we do it, and is it legal and ethical, but how might it be perceived and is that something we can live with?