Denham Sadler
October 8, 2019

CyberCon cancels whistleblowers

Cybersecurity

CyberCon cancels whistleblowers

Thomas Drake: Conference censorship sends a "chilling message" and an "abuse of power"

A prominent US national security whistleblower who had his speech at a government-sponsored cybersecurity conference in Melbourne cancelled – along with the speech of an Australian academic – says the action was an example of “censorship” that “sends a really chilling message”.

Thomas Drake, a former executive of the National Security Agency and well-known whistleblower, and Dr Suelette Dreyfus, a digital security researcher, were both booked nearly a year ago to speak at the Australian Information Security Association’s (AISA) CyberCon event in Melbourne this week.

But both were informed last week that they had been disinvited due to the content of their speeches being “incongruent” with the conference.

CyberCon is this year being run by AISA in partnership with the federal government’s Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) and Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC).

Both Mr Drake and Dr Dreyfus told InnovationAus.com they believe their speeches were cancelled due to pressure from the federal government over the content they were set to discuss, specifically around whistleblowers.

“Why would the conference partner say that my presentation was incongruent with the conference after it was congruent until eight days prior to the conference? There’s been some kind of review, and it has to be about whistleblowing,” Mr Drake told InnovationAus.com.

“AISA is the messenger here and they’ve been put in a very difficult position because of their partner. It’s an abuse of power. I’ve realised that they can really twist the organiser’s arm, and they obviously did.”

The AISA confirmed that the two speakers had been replaced at the conference “only recently”.

“AISA supports and encourages diversity of views however it’s important to note we work with a number of partners, including government, and as such need to manage a variety of views to deliver an event catered for all our stakeholders,” AISA deputy chair Alex Woerndle told InnovationAus.com.

Shadow assistant minister for cybersecurity Tim Watts has called on the federal government to explain its role in removing the speakers from the conference.

“It’s for the government to explain why it wants to silence speakers on whistleblowing. Is this another case of the government silencing its critics? If the government has legitimate concerns over these individuals, then they should be upfront and explain themselves,” Mr Watts said.

Mr Drake blew the whistle on the mass surveillance program being run by the NSA in 2006, and later had charges dropped under the Espionage Act.

He is the recipient of the Ridenhour Prize for Truth Telling and the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence Award.

Mr Drake said he had told the organiser’s the title of his speech – “the Golden Age of Surveillance” – months ago, and sent them his slides in September, with no concerns raised.

The renowned whistleblower had been set to deliver a “provocative peek at the present future of the national security state, encryption and the de-evolution of democracy and the rise of technocracy”, according to the abstract.

Dr Dreyfus had been booked to deliver a speech on secure and anonymous digital drop boxes as an anti-corruption tool to improve internal security. She said she had been invited to speak at the conference in November, with this confirmed throughout this year.

But she was informed last week that the talk had been cancelled after organisers and partners had just seen the topic title, not the abstract or slides.

“I suspect they are afraid to have the word whistleblower spoken from any stage at the conference, which is madness because Australia has whistleblower protection laws,” Dr Dreyfus told InnovationAus.com.

“We need to talk about that word, and how we can use technology to ensure legally-approved methods for disclosure are actually protected,” he said.

“You need to be engaged and not just with people who tell you what you want to hear. That’s really the concern here.”

Mr Drake believes his removal from the conference “raises some really, really serious questions”.

“I know what it’s like to be targeted directly by my own government based on my whistleblowing. It sends a really chilling message and it means they have the power to keep someone’s voice silent,” he said.

“It’s the first time I’ve been censored at a conference and I’ve been doing all kinds of conferences for many, many years. I’ve never had any content modified or anything like that, and this was an outright disinvitation. I’ve been removed and expunged from the conference program.”

The cybersecurity sector needs to be open about the issues it is facing, Dr Dreyfus said.

“This is about a battle being waged about the best way to improve the country’s cybersecurity. One path is secretive and closed and insular, and the other path is open and about sharing information, solutions and problems. I think the second path is the path that is emerging as the better way to improve the whole country’s cybersecurity posture,” she said.

“If we share problems, incidents and exposures then we can all learn from it and do better. That’s a much more important thing and the reason why I’ve spoken out. If I don’t go to one conference that’s fine, but it’s not fine to silence voices in the discussion and particularly so when we’ve just seen two major cybersecurity news stories in the last week in Australia.”

The University of Melbourne has backed its academic, tweeting out information about the cancellation on Tuesday morning.

“We encourage and support our academics who share their research openly with the community. CyberCon is a strong opportunity to do so and we were disappointed to learn [Dr Dreyfus] was disinvited from presenting at this year’s conference,” University of Melbourne School of Engineering Dean Mark Cassidy said.

“During national cyber week, now is the time for important and robust discussions about maintaining data security and protecting Australians. We welcome debate and will always support academic freedom.”

The ACSC earlier this year shuttered its own industry conference, which was previously held in March in Canberra. They instead entered into a partnership with the AISA to run CyberCon, which is running this week in Melbourne.

here have also been numerous reports of the media being banned from several speeches at CyberCon, including one delivered by the assistant secretary of the Department of Home Affairs.

The ACSC and ASD have been contacted for comment.

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