Opinion: Did The Australian Government Just Give Us A Terrorism Shopping List?

"Be alert but not alarmed." That was the tagline of Australia's first prominent terrorism awareness campaign back in the early-2000s. Hotlines were set up, ads were all over the telly, and people were generally advised to watch out for home-grown threats. It was a great idea, and now the government is out to revive the campaign against home-grown threats, but in doing so it seems to have given us a shopping list of ingredients for home-made bombs.

The Chemical Security campaign is designed to help Australians identify chemicals that can be diverted from their usual purpose and used in bomb-making activities by terrorists. It's a big drive to get people to call the National Security hotline (1800 1234 00) if they suspect potential terrorist behaviour.

As the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said in a speech yesterday: if the fumes coming from the apartment in London where bombs were being made had been reported, the incidents of the 2005 Tube bombings might not have happened.

Indeed, a Coronial Inquest into the incidents on the London Underground found that the fumes coming from chemical production inside the flat was enough to kill the plans living outside. Serious stuff.

Chemicals are routinely used in bomb production, and the purchase of large chemical quantities is currently monitored, but the government intelligence agency, ASIO, can't watch everyone, so it's calling for public vigilance.

To do so, the government has set up a website to identify chemicals of security concern.

It's decked out like a scary site should be: black background, white text, bold fonts and photos of the offending chemicals that we should all be watching and sniffing out for. Navigate a little deeper into the site, however, and you find that the government thought it would be a good idea to publish a list of 96 problematic chemicals used in bomb production in a big shiny PDF- or Microsoft Word-compatible list (we're not linking to it). Does anyone else find that strange?

That a government looking to dissuade a public from building bombs from over-the-counter chemicals would publish a list of the chemicals you can use to make bombs on its website?

It's doubly-interesting when you think about how other industries handle anti-terrorism measures. All retail telco outlets for example must now make customers fill out an AMTA identification form when they buy any pre-paid phone service. That form requires you to present 100 points of identification before the SIM card and assigned phone number are recorded and stored by the government. That way, if something suspect goes down with a pre-paid SIM card, ASIO have a lead to chase.

Follow that train of thought a little further and you realise that it's actually easier to purchase a gun in the US than it is to purchase a pre-paid SIM card in Australia. So if that's the case for SIM cards that can be a mere accessory to bomb making and terrorist activities, why are we publicising a list of potentially explosive chemicals on a government website?

We spoke to the Attorney-General's office about it, and they don't see the issue, pointing out that the AG mentioned in his speech that a list of these chemicals is already just a click away, so publishing it on an official website is no big deal:

"If you think I am being irresponsible in giving away bomb making instructions to terrorists – I can assure you that unfortunately, these instructions are already easily accessible via the internet. Not only can you find detailed instructions for making bombs, but courtesy of YouTube, you can watch the explosions that they create," the AG said yesterday.

But just because people post this awful stuff to YouTube and whatever backwards blog they run, in my opinion, doesn't mean they should be published online without a second thought.

What's probably a better idea is the dissemination of this list to people who import chemicals, and better yet, to retailers and hardware stores that sell these chemicals. When you or I go to Bunnings Warehouse, for example, we still have to ask a staff member to kindly unlock the spray paints for goodness sake, and those aren't about to be used by terrorists to blow anything up.

Keeping lists of stuff secret and handing them out to individual people creates a mystique around the content of the list, we've already seen that with the leaked "blacklist" of nefarious websites that the ACMA reportedly wanted blocked in the lead-up to the Australian Internet Filter trials. There is, however, a fine line that can be tread between keeping information completely secret from the public as to what can do harm when concocted versus plastering on the internet for all to see.

I think this campaign needs to find that line.

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