It was always going to end in tears, this leftie cheeking of the Security Intelligence Service by requesting details of their spying activities against you. Quelle horreur. What would you tell your comrades if the spooks wrote back and said, "Sorry, you're so uninteresting, we don't have any record of you."

It's the reason I never risked writing to Spy Central a year or so back when they first offered to open their filing cabinets to the paranoid, and to anyone else who suspected the spooks might have been trawling for dirt on them over the years. Having made mock of the SIS at times, in particular, when I unmasked a fellow student as a spy during my Auckland University days, I was naturally enough tempted to discover what they had on me. Holding me back was the fear of receiving a humiliating, "not known at this address" reply.

It would have been fun to dine out on a manila folder of musty notes revealing I'd been overheard plotting the downfall of western civilisation as an under-age drinker in the public bar of the old Grand Hotel in Princes St. But oh, the shame if the official response was I was so unimportant, there was no record of my existence.

Poor old Auckland University law professor Jane Kelsey seems to be going through that very grieving process right now. Her fellow campaigner Green MP Sue Bradford got a large wodge of material back. Green MP Keith Locke hit the jackpot with his request, receiving records of his nefarious leftwing activities dating back to when he was 11 years old. And much fun he had with it at the time, releasing it with much feigned shock and horror to the media.

But Dr Kelsey has got back only three miserable pages. A flyer promoting a public meeting at Auckland University about human rights in the Philippines in 1986, and a summary of a speech she made on the same topic two years later. And these miserable pickings were released only after she demanded a review by the privacy commissioner of her original nil return.

Luckily for her street credibility, the Sunday Star-Times reports that the SIS has said there is more on the Kelsey file, but they're refusing to release it because to do so would be likely to prejudice the security or defence of New Zealand, or the international relations of the Government.

That at least means hers might be as big as Sue's and Keith's and she's possibly more dangerous as well.

Dr Kelsey says the files being withheld might reveal the SIS is bugging her emails. A university colleague is quoted saying he would not be surprised if the SIS had informants at the university. Now that wouldn't surprise me.

Back in the late 1960s, the SIS planted a student-spy on the Auckland campus who tried to enlist the students' association secretary to spy on two visiting Russian students. He was also interested in Auckland students enrolling for a students' association trip to China and Russia.

A couple of years previously, while doing part-time history, he had tried to persuade a student to join the notorious Peace Council as a typist and to take duplicate copies of everything typed - these were pre-computer days.

There were demonstrations in Symonds St, uproar in Parliament and eventually, a commission of inquiry. Among his recommendations, the judge-commissioner said no SIS member enrolled at a university should ply his trade at the same time.

The SIS being a law unto itself, there's no way of knowing whether it ever followed this suggestion.

What has changed, however, is our attitude to the spies. Back then, I was warned by concerned academics about the risk I was taking mocking the spooks. Senior staff caught up in the furore felt the need to hire QCs to protect their interests - and their jobs. National politicians bayed for commie blood. The fear of Brigadier Gilbert, the head of the SIS, and his men was palpable.

We live in freer times and the SIS feeling the need to open their files is a response to that. How ironic that the one power they still have to intimidate the left is the threat to reveal they have no file on a person.

Luckily for Dr Kelsey, they haven't quite gone that far.