The Australian Federal Police "illegally" accessed the metadata of a journalist, commissioner Andrew Colvin admitted on Friday in a controversial breach of privacy.
Colvin said that, in the course of investigating the leak of "sensitive information" to media, police accessed a journalist's metadata without a warrant. He said the information accessed involved phone numbers, as well as the time, date and duration of calls, in admitting to the breach on Friday afternoon. Colvin put the mistake down to "human error".
"I do want to say at this point that what was accessed was the records of calls, not the content of those calls. Just the fact of the existence of the calls in the first place. The actual investigation, the internal investigation that led to this breach, is still ongoing," he said.
"The breach, as a result of that investigation, was identified by the AFP as a result of our own review. Once the breach was confirmed, we immediately moved to destroy all of the material that was provided to us as a result of that breach. I can also say that no investigational activity has occurred as a result of us being provided with that material."
The federal government passed controversial laws forcing the mandatory collection of telecommunications metadata in 2015, which would allow law enforcement agencies to access records relating to phone calls and internet activity. The introduction of the laws were met with fierce opposition, with complaints on privacy grounds. The laws finally came into force a fortnight ago.
Colvin said the AFP breach, which happened "earlier this year", has been reported to the Commonwealth Ombudsman for investigation. He also said the AFP would be changing its own policies around accessing metadata, including limiting the number of staff who could approve access to metadata.
"It should not have occurred. The AFP takes it very seriously and we take full responsibility for a breach of the Act but I also want to say there was no ill will or malice or bad intent by the officers involved who breached the Act. Quite simply, it was a mistake that should not have happened," he said.
"[Police will] need to consider in terms of next steps of the investigation what weight they put on what they saw but that material was accessed illegally so it can have no bearing on the conduct of the investigation."
Colvin said the journalist involved had not been notified that their metadata had been breached, due to the fact the investigation into the leak was still ongoing. He stressed that the metadata itself would have been available to police had they gone through the proper channels in the first place, but said that police had not made a new request to officially and legitimately access that metadata.
"Once we realised we made the breach, we stopped all investigations relating to that line of inquiry," Colvin said.
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