by Tim Sherratt

Categories

  • research

I’ve just finished a draft of a chapter entitled ‘Hacking heritage: understanding the limits of online access’. I’ve uploaded the preprint to Humanities Commons and would welcome any comments or thoughts.

As often seems the case, I had to sacrifice my scene-setting introduction in order to make the word limit. Truth be told, the chapter probably works better without it. But the original introduction stands fairly well on it’s own, so rather than just delete it, why not recycle it as a blog post!


Secrets

ABC website, 3 February 2018

In January 2018, Australians learnt about ‘one of the biggest national security breaches in the nation’s history’. The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) had obtained ‘hundreds of top-secret and highly classified cabinet documents’ accidentally sold off in some old, locked filing cabinets. The ‘story of their release’, claimed the ABC, was ‘as gripping as it is alarming and revealing’.

Within days, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation had stepped in, stuffing the wayward documents into secure briefcases and wheeling away the filing cabinets. As an act of security theatre it offered reassurance — the nation’s secrets were in safe hands once more.

A few days before this ‘breach’ was revealed, the Canberra Times told the story of an internment camp established on the outskirts of the nation’s capital during World War I. Conditions in the camp were described, the newspaper noted, in ‘a series of letters recently released by the National Archives of Australia’.

These two stories — one a national scandal, the other a piece of local history — seem to have little in common. But they both reflect the way in which access to government records is often imbued with a sense of drama or mystery.

It’s true that Cabinet records are subject to some special protections, but like other government records they are expected to be opened to public scrutiny after 20 years (30 years in the case of cabinet notebooks). Some files are withheld or redacted, but such restrictions can be challenged or reconsidered. Some of the ‘highly classified’ documents the ABC revealed were already more than ten years old, well on their way towards public release. Instead of a massive security breach, we might argue that this was merely a case of accelerated release.

The ABC justified its actions in releasing the Cabinet documents by invoking the public’s ‘right to know’. But the idea that the public has a right to access government records is hardly new. In 1955, with the Cold War raging, the Commonwealth Archives Committee emphasised the ‘moral obligation’ of democratic governments to make the records of their activities available for research. ‘In doing so’, the Committee argued, ‘they make a significant contribution to the continuing search for truth which is an essential part of the continuing democratic process’. These rights have their limits, but the idea of public access is at the core of the Archives Act, passed in 1983. Most government records are opened to the public without the need for crusading journalists.

The ‘recently released’ documents cited by the Canberra Times are actually available in a file opened in 1975, and linked from a page created in 2007 on the National Archives’ website. Perhaps it was a mistake, or perhaps it was an attempt to make the the story seem a little more exciting. The interest-level of archival documents, it seems, is inversely related to the number of people who have seen them. Authors and publishers readily invoke this sense of mystery in spruiking their wares — phrases like ‘recently declassified’ or ‘previously secret’ add a sense of drama to historical research. The routine bureaucratic processes through which information is controlled and released give way to stories of discovery and liberation.

Yes, information is withheld. Voices are suppressed or missing. Access is never truly open. But if we focus on the threshold moments, when information becomes somehow ‘public’, we miss the opportunity to interrogate the forces that control and shape the historical record. We make it harder to see what is missing.

References

Commonwealth Archives Committee. (1955). Report and recommendations on the granting of access to Commonwealth archives for non-official research purposes (A6954, 2). National Archives of Australia.

Department of Defence. (1917-1919). Inspection of Australian Prisoner of War Camps by Consul General for Sweden Closure Prisoners of War Camp at Bourke (MP367/1, 425/10/299). National Archives of Australia. Retrieved from http://www.naa.gov.au/cgi-bin/Search?O=I&Number=361347

Lyons, J. (2018, February 3). Behind one of the biggest national security breaches in Australia’s history. ABC News. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/about/backstory/news-coverage/2018-02-03/the-cabinet-files-and-how-they-were-found/9393008

McGhee, A., & McKinnon, M. (2018, January 31). This is what’s in the secret documents ASIO wants to keep under lock and key. ABC News. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-01-31/cabinet-files-reveal-inner-government-decisions/9168442

National Archives of Australia. (n.d.). Access to records under the Archives Act - Fact sheet 10. Retrieved from http://naa.gov.au/collection/fact-sheets/fs10.aspx

National Archives of Australia. (n.d.). Molonglo, Australian Capital Territory (1918–19). Retrieved from http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/snapshots/internment-camps/WWI/molonglo.aspx

Trask, S. (2018, January 27). Conditions inside Canberra’s Molonglo war camp revealed in century-old letters. Canberra Times. Retrieved from http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/conditions-inside-canberras-molonglo-war-camp-revealed-in-centuryold-letters-20180111-h0h73u.html