If Tony Abbott’s government has its way, new laws further empowering Australia's secret police to greatly expand their mass surveillance powers will be rammed through federal parliament by mid-March.
But it will succeed only if the Australian Labor Party backs the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill.
The ALP seems set to do this, after a joint parliamentary committee of Labor and Coalition MPs gave bipartisan endorsement to a mildly trimmed back version of the original bill introduced by Abbott's Attorney-General, George Brandis, last year. Brandis famously struggled to explain "metadata".
This bill requires telecommunications companies to retain their customers’ metadata for two years for access by government agencies. It was rightly condemned by civil liberties groups, lawyers' associations, media organisations, information technology workers and pretty much anyone who consistently stands up for democratic rights.
They have pointed out that this metadata would allows the authorities to track, without a warrant, everyone who uses mobile phones, computers or ATMs. From metadata, the authorities can find out who you have communicated with, where you have been and therefore a lot about what you have done.
This seriously infringes on individual privacy. The law will also make it much harder for journalists to do serious investigative reporting and for whistleblowers to speak up against authorities. It could also weaken the confidentiality of lawyer-client communications.
Abbott is selling the new laws as a necessary trade-off of liberties to fight terrorism. But Katie Miller, the President of the Law Institute of Victoria, explained in the March 3 Financial Review that this is a dubious justification: “There is no evidence data retention will make us safer. Telecommunications data of suspects or persons of interest may be useful to the police. But that doesn't mean that data of every person in Australia who uses a phone or the internet is useful to the police.
“In Germany, which has had no mandatory data retention laws since its scheme was found to be unconstitutional, a 2011 study found data retention had no impact on either the effectiveness of criminal investigations or the crime rate.
“In July 2013, British representatives before the Court of Justice of the European Union conceded there was no 'scientific data' to underpin the claimed need for data retention.
“Similarly, in 2013 the US Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board found that there is little evidence that the metadata program has made the United States safer.”
On the other hand, there is a lot of evidence that the authorities are already carrying out secret and illegal mass surveillance on a huge scale. US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed in 2013 that a powerful intelligence network comprising spy agencies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain and the US has been collecting content and metadata intercepted by satellite for years. The data is channelled into the XKeyscore database run by the NSA.
Collecting metadata has been rejected as unconstitutional in Germany and several other countries and an appeal court judge in the US has said the NSA's mass surveillance may also be unconstitutional in that country.
However, Abbott's new data retention laws help legitimise in Australia what the spy agencies have already been doing secretly and illegally.
The ALP caved in to Abbott over the two previous tranches of “security” laws and now it seems set to cave in over data retention. This will not only be another bipartisan attack on people’s civil rights, it will also be a much undeserved boost to the flagging political support for the crisis-engulfed Abbott government.
Abbott is reeling under the impact of mass rejection of its right-wing, conservative and neoliberal political agenda. In particular, the overwhelming majority of people have rejected its attacks on public health and public education.
Abbott is now making a last-ditch effort to regain some support by whipping up anti-terrorist hysteria and anti-Muslim hatred and bigotry. If the ALP supports this latest, anti-democratic “security” bill, it will be helping boost the Abbott government's flagging political fortunes.