Federal Parliament's internal security cameras have been used to monitor contacts between political staffers, bureaucrats and journalists, according to former parliamentary staff.
Fairfax Media has confirmed that Australian Federal Police investigators hunting leakers of government information have accessed images and information from the Parliament's closed circuit television cameras located throughout the building, including the corridors of the press gallery.
In one instance during the former Rudd government, Parliament House security cameras were used to monitor the movements of a Labor staffer suspected of leaking cabinet secrets to a prominent journalist.
According to former Department of Parliamentary Services staff, CCTV cameras were used to monitor the staffer's visits to the press gallery as well as contact between the staffer, who worked for a cabinet minister, and the journalist in other parts of the building, including the cafeteria. Surveillance extended to monitoring the journalist's movements while he worked at Parliament on weekends and at night.
Former DPS officials familiar with security operations say the AFP considers the Parliament's CCTV system to be a legitimate investigatory tool and have used the surveillance system to track bureaucrats, political staffers and journalists in leak investigations over the past decade.
The CCTV system became a matter of controversy when it was revealed at a Senate estimates committee hearing on Monday that DPS officers had used video surveillance in an internal disciplinary investigation of a senior member of the parliamentary Hansard staff. The official was recorded by CCTV cameras placing an envelope under the door of the office of veteran Labor Senator John Faulkner.
The clerk of the Senate Rosemary Laing has advised Senator Faulkner there is "a reasonably strong possibility" that contempt of the Senate was committed by DPS officials and the incident has been referred to the Senate privileges committee for an investigation.
"[U]se of the CCTV system to conduct surveillance of a senator's office and to identify persons providing information to that office could be seen as an attempt to deter the senator from pursuing a matter of public importance by restricting the flow of information to the senator," Dr Laing wrote.
However, the Parliament's code of practice for use of the CCTV system does allow images and video footage to be accessed by the AFP in criminal investigations and for undefined "intelligence purposes".
Approval for AFP access must be given by senior parliamentary officers if images include a senator or member of the House of Representatives. However AFP access to images of other persons only requires approval from a DPS middle manager – the assistant secretary, building services.
At the Senate estimates hearing on Monday, independent senator Nick Xenophon asked DPS head Carol Mills whether the CCTV cameras could be used to investigate offences under sections 70 and 79 of the Crimes Act that deal with unauthorised disclosure of government information, including the receipt of leaks by journalists. Ms Mills replied "That is potentially true, yes."
Senator Xenophon said on Friday that the AFP's easy access to the Parliament's CCTV system "ought to alarm every journalist because even face-to-face meetings with whistle-blowers aren't safe from government surveillance and investigation".
At a meeting on Wednesday, DPS first assistant secretary Neil Skill assured Press Galley president David Speers that the security cameras in the press gallery corridors "are not being used inappropriately". However Mr Speers later observed that DPS officials "weren't too keen to go into details".
An AFP spokesperson confirmed that Federal Police accesses the Parliament House CCTV system "from time to time to conduct criminal investigations," but declined to elaborate beyond saying that "access is in accordance with existing protocols".
Ms Mills did not respond to questions submitted by Fairfax Media.