Blockade Australia climate activist cannot use encrypted apps and must allow police access to phone


Since the end of June, Greg Rolles has had to present his computer and mobile phone to the police checkpoint on request, and communicate his passwords to them.

He is not allowed to use encrypted messaging apps, like Signal or WhatsApp. He can only have one cell phone.

And there’s a list of 38 people, many of them his friends, who he’s not allowed to associate with in any way – even another activist found out he liked a post about the social networks.

These are the strict technology-linked bail conditions imposed on some Blockade Australia climate protesters – a development that legal experts have called “unusual” and “extreme”.

The Climate Action Network was linked to a series of protests earlier this year, targeting ports and freight trains in NSW, and a property where activists were gathering was raided by police .

More than 30 people have been arrested for unauthorized protests and traffic disruption, among other charges, according to police statements.

In April, the New South Wales parliament passed laws imposing heavy fines and jail time for activities that “shut down major economic activity”, including unlawful protests on public roads, railways, tunnels, bridges and industrial areas.

A Blockade Australia protester is arrested by NSW Police. Eleven activists were arrested following an action in Sydney on June 27.(Twitter: Blockade Australia)

Mr Rolles was arrested in late June, when he was taken off the streets in Sydney for allegedly blocking roads and obstructing traffic.

As soon as he was released on bail, he deleted Signal and lost many of his contacts. Because he cannot use WhatsApp, he said he could no longer communicate with the people in Afghanistan for whom he was arranging assistance with his church.

The vagueness of the encryption ban is also a concern for him. In addition to prohibiting specific apps such as Signal and Telegram, it states “that the defendant is prohibited from possessing or having access to an encrypted communication device and/or from possessing an encrypted media application/application”.

Large swaths of the internet are encrypted, which simply means that information is converted into code to protect it from unwanted access. Applications ranging from online banking to streaming services are usually encrypted.

“Encryption is everywhere because it’s fundamental to keeping modern communications technology secure and functional,” said a spokesperson for Electronic Frontiers Australia.

“[That includes] basically any modern device, including laptops, cell phones, ATMs, TVs, PlayStations, and government websites such as myGov, Medicare, and Centrelink.

Mr Rolles said he was concerned the provision could be read in its strictest interpretation.

“I am very afraid of how this will be applied.

“I definitely still have that kind of background anxiety – will the police just knock on my door?

“If a police officer was a little annoyed at me, could he say, ‘You made phone calls, it’s encrypted’?”

Mr. Rolles has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Facebook ‘thumbs up’ puts activist in hot water

Defense barrister Mark Davis, who represents some of Blockade Australia’s activists, said the vagueness of the ban was concerning.

“He used to name the things you couldn’t have and then they made it into encrypted communication,” he said.

“You may be on your PlayStation.”

He also takes issue with the non-association rules and the lack of clarity on what an “association” might be.

Mr Davis said one of his clients was stopped by police after reacting with a ‘thumbs up’ emoji to Facebook comments shared by friends who were also allegedly involved in Blockade Australia activities.

“A nudge is not much in terms of communication,” the activist told the ABC.

“The fact that the state finds this threatening – people speaking up and sharing our ideas – is very telling.”

No bail violation charges were ultimately pursued for the likes.

Jane Sanders, senior counsel at the Shopfront Youth Legal Centre, said such bail conditions were not too common in her experience, except for serious offenses like drug trafficking, child pornography or repeated allegations of using a transportation service to threaten or offend. .

“It would be those kinds of things where technology is used to facilitate this [police] pretend to be pretty serious crimes,” she said.

In the case of these climate protests, some of the alleged conduct is “potentially serious and potentially very disruptive,” Ms Sanders said.

She said that if she were to play devil’s advocate, maybe the police or the courts might think it necessary to stop the group from communicating with each other.

Nonetheless, in his view, bail is about managing risk while someone awaits trial.

“To effectively shut down the right to political communication with these conditions seems extreme to me,” Ms. Sanders said.

“A shitty way of life”

NSW Council for Civil Liberties chairman Josh Pallas suggested such restrictions on communication and technology abused the purposes of bail law.

“It is intended to prevent people from failing to appear in court, from committing other serious crimes, or from perceiving a danger to the community, or from interfering with witnesses,” he said of bail law.

a man stands on a coal wagon with his arms outstretched and a sign on the wagon saying serious crisis, serious response
Blockade Australia has also undertaken protests targeting coal transports in the port of Newcastle, disrupting operations.(Provided: Blockade Australia)

In the case of climatic events, he does not see the same risks.

“They are protesting peacefully. Where is the security threat?

Likewise, forcing someone to ensure that all of their personal information is open to police surveillance is “an extraordinary step to take”, according to Alice Drury, legal director of the Human Rights Law Centre.

She is also concerned about how vaguely worded the bail conditions are.

“[They’re] certainly … very broadly worded bail conditions that make it very difficult for people to understand and comply with it,” she said.

“Police discretion should never be so absolute.”

For Mr Rolles, a committed climate activist, this has led him to continually worry about whether he might unwittingly break the rules using his phone or the internet.

“I always have on the back of my head where my meds are and a top that I can wear around the house on duty to keep me warm,” he said.

“It’s a shitty way of life.”


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