Ever get the feeling you're being watched? It may be easier than you think to become worthy of the attention of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. Since it was launched in 1949, ASIO has opened files on some 500,000 Australians. Many of these files amount to only a few pages. Some are up to 50 volumes long.
Based on what we can tell from recently declassified dossiers, ASIO has opened files on anyone known to be in support of the land rights movement and anyone who spoke up against government policy. There are files on students, feminists, journalists, academics, folk singers and those suspected of having Communist sympathies. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has a massive file - with particular attention paid to the brainwashing potential of Play School.
And, according to Haydn Keenan, co-curator of the Persons of Interest: The ASIO Files exhibition at the Justice & Police Museum, you had to be careful who you hung around with. "All you had to do is be associated with someone who has a file," Keenan says. "Get caught in a photograph with them, or talk to them on the phone, and there'd be a little note next to your name: ‘Check out this person.'"
When ASIO decides to ‘check you out', they really check you out. A file might begin with a lot of information about your height, weight, eye colour, age, date of birth. Gradually, though, it turns into a sinister soap opera of your day-to-day life. "Every phone call you make, ever flight you take, every hotel you stay in," Keenan says. "All your friends, all your jobs, everything. It's quite mind-blowing." Nothing, it seems, was unimportant. "The thing that shocks you is the banality: the phone intercepts and the person says, ‘Mum, I got my driving licence.' They recorded that. And 50 years later it' still sitting there.
"And you see, certainly in the old days, if you've got a file you're a suspect. It's like Kafka. The charge is unstated and you can never prove you're innocent." Even more unsettling than that, perhaps, is the notion that ASIO just keeps on watching. "I haven't run into any files that have been closed before death," Keenan says. "Quite often the final page of your file is your death notice in the Herald. It never closes. It can go dormant - people stop being communists or they get married and have kids or whatever - but the file still sits there."
Under the Archives Act, ASIO is required to make files that are 20 years old available to the public through the National Archives. After that time, anyone can get a hold of his or her file - if it exists. "There's nothing worse for a revolutionary than finding out they haven't got a file," says Keenan. "‘I was a threat to the state!'" Keenan jokes. "'I was a dead-set danger!'"
At which point in our phone interview we could swear we hear an uncomforting click through the phone receiver.