Daily Archives: April 17, 2011

THE AGE HACKING SCANDAL: Fairfax Editor and journalists implicated in illegal database hacking

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The Age newspaper, its editor Paul Ramadge and potential criminal defendants Royce Millar and Nick McKenzie face gravely serious allegations of illegally hacking the ALP’s computers during the last Victorian state election.

The Sunday Herald Sun’s award-winning reporter James Campbell writes that Labor tracked this illegal access back to IP addresses associated with Fairfax, the publisher of The Age. He reports that The Age staff not only illegally accessed the database but scandalously attempted to copy it in its entirety:

ALP orders hacking probe

THE ALP has obtained legal advice on the laws relating to computer hacking after its IT systems were accessed during last year’s state election via computers housed within The Age newspaper office.

The advice was sought after an ALP audit of the party’s Eleczilla database, which contains the personal details of millions of Victorians, found the database had been accessed from two computer terminals inside The Age.

The database holds the names, addresses, phone numbers and marital status of every Victorian on the electoral roll, and confidential details of correspondence from the public with the ALP.

The source said the database had been accessed many times, with searches for the personal details of scores of individuals.

“They didn’t just look at it — they attempted to copy it,” the source said.

laurelandhardyThe ALP believes the password to access the site was obtained from a laptop computer stolen from a union’s offices during the election.

Last November,
The Age published a report by Royce Millar and Nick McKenzie in which they said the newspaper had “gained access” to the ALP’s database.

The Sunday Herald Sun has obtained a copy of legal advice from a major plaintiff law firm on the implications of accessing a database without permission.

“The maximum penalty is two years’ imprisonment and the offence attracts absolute liability . . . there is no available defence such as public interest,” it said.

A source said the party was puzzled why the database had been accessed from Fairfax’s offices and not an internet cafe, where “we would never have known about it”.

ALP state secretary Noah Carroll said the matter was under investigation, but Labor sources said a decision over whether to refer the matter to the police had yet to be made.

“We are aware of a breach and are considering our actions on an ongoing basis,” Mr Carroll said.

Paul Ramadge, editor-in-chief of The Age, denied hacking.

“No journalist at The Age at any stage hacked into an ALP database,” he said.

The Age was provided with access to a database by people involved in the ALP’s election campaign.

“They had come to us saying the database raised questions about how the party was gaining access to people’s private information.”

NEWS OF THE WORLD HAD 100 VICTIMS, THE AGE HAS MILLIONS
The magnitude of this privacy breach could be massive, vastly exceeding the News of the World’s notorious hacking of a few celebrity voicemails which have seen multiple criminal prosections, sackings, lawsuits, expensive settlements and downright carnage after it came out the otherwise-excellent newspaper had been using private detectives to do the dirty.

The database The Age hackers appear to have gained illegal access contains the private details of potentially millions of Victorian voters, including what The Age itself described as “sensitive financial and health information.”

THE CUNNING PLAN
The hacking incidents informed a front-page splash days prior to the election in the paper’s desperate attempt to campaign for the Greens among the newspaper’s inner-city readership. It was considered by inner-city political strategists to be a highly damaging albeit bogus beat-up story, with reports that many MPs fielded many concerned inquiries about this supposedly “secret” voter database. Of course, its existence was never a secret although its contents – for legitimate privacy reasons – are kept secret. Both the Liberal and Labor parties maintain the same types of databases that are designed to ensure good service for constituents and to remind MP’s and staff what issues they might have that had required their involvement or were of more general concern to the voter.

theagetandberggreensDemonising the database Electrac was a cheap shot but was a reasonably effective one. It has now emerged that in order to get their front-page scoop to boost the Greens, Ramadge’s reporters Millar and McKenzie broke the law.

Brazenly, the scribes appear to admit their crimes when they reported: at the time:

In a rare insight into personal profiling by the major parties, The Age has gained access to the database used by the ALP to tailor its telephoning and door-knocking of individual voters in key marginal electorates.

Bizarrely, their defence is that they were given the password by someone from the ALP, a person who could also be imprisoned as a result of the hacking scandal. Of course, that is no defence to cybercriminal hacking, if I give someone my password to online banking that doesn’t entitle them to access it without my permission. As we will see, the law is clear on this.

Their article reveals an intimate familiarity with the database Electrac, which it seems they hacked into without the ALP’s permission, in violation of federal law.

The system allows searches based variously on people’s names, addresses and their stances on issues such as gay rights and the environment. It also enables mapping of campaign street walks, giving candidates and volunteers access to profiles on many of the people they door-knock or phone – including their voting intentions.

In what appears to the first front-page guilty plea by newspaper staff in modern publishing history, The Age published this infographic too:

Information taken from the ALP database.

That’s not an ideal situation in light of the legal predicament The Age and its employees now find themselves in. In short, editor Paul Ramadge, reporters Royce Miller and Nick McKenzie appear to be criminals.

A legal expert familiar with the situation has drafted advice about that has been in circulation in Victorian Labor circles since the election. It paints an ominous picture for The Age hackers.

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