Laptop imports declared SECRET in Australia

Data on networking sales freed again - do YOU know about any big deals that went down?

HP Star Wars Laptop
Even The Force can't divine the value of laptops imported to Australia in August

Australians aren't allowed to know the value of laptop computers being imported to the country.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics' new Confidential Commodities List removes “Laptops, notebooks, palmtops and tablets, weighing more than 1 kg but not more than 3 kg, consisting of at least a central processing unit, a keyboard and a display” from the list commodities for which it reports the value of imports, as of September 1st 2015.

The decision to remove the devices from the list of imports with reported values comes a month after the Bureau removed the value of networking products from its reports. That category has now been restored to import data.

When we probed the removal of networking kit from statistics, we learned that it's possible to request such an omission on grounds that inclusion might become a useful source of intelligence for commercial or defence purposes. On the commercial front, imagine an entirely hypothetical deal in which Huawei beats Cisco. The former vendor is thought to discount deeply to beat the latter. If Cisco can see a spike in a month's networking imports, it can make a better guess at how much Huawei charged and what the customer paid. On the defence side, imagine an Australian intelligence agency buys a shedload of kit. If the spike appears in monthly stats, the world will know it. If the stats don't reveal the sales spike, the side channel goes away.

Applicants for confidentiality are guaranteed anonymity. But there's nothing we can see in the legislation covering Bureau that prevents the publication of the reasons for a confidentiality request.

The Reg has therefore made a Freedom of Information request for the reasons stated in the application for confidentiality of networking products. We're yet to hear back, but the relevant Department did ask for an extension of the time in which they can make a response. Which isn't necessarily a good thing: it could mean the lawyers are trying to find a reason to deny the request.

While we wait for that, two important questions remain unanswered about the laptop data crimp:

  1. Who requested confidentiality for laptop imports, and why?
  2. Why did the ban on networking data last only a month?

A pet theory for question one: Apple's finding ways to hide its affairs from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). If it can import a swag of MacBooks without their value being made public, the ATO will find it harder to pick apart the pricing practices it uses to avoid tax.

And for question two: A big networking deal went down in August and somebody wants the value of it kept under wraps.

If you know about such a deal, feel free to drop me a line or call . I'll happily keep your name out of it. ®

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