Spooks seek super spying powers

Australia’s spying agencies want to vastly expand their powers while reducing the accountability for such surveillance.

Australia’s spy agencies are seeking to drastically expand their powers to spy on Australian citizens online and through social media. They are also hoping to collect and keep the phone and internet data of all individuals for two years.

Some of the proposals appear to be broad enough to allow whistleblowing groups like WikiLeaks to be directly targeted.

The proposals have been raised in a discussion paper released by the attorney-general: “Equipping Australia Against Emerging and Evolving Threats”, which will be considered by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

Public submissions are being taken for the proposals, but the timeframe is very short. Submissions will close on August 6. From there the committee will hold public and classified hearings on the proposals.

The discussion paper contains three sets of proposals: those the government wishes to introduce, those it is considering and those for which it is seeking the views of the committee.

This aims to test the public sentiment around the proposals and give it a way out if there is huge outrage against the more intrusive proposals.

The proposals are an ambit claim by Australia’s spying agencies to vastly expand their powers while reducing the accountability for such surveillance.

If passed, it creates the potential for the biggest intrusion on civil liberties since the anti-terrorism laws passed by the Howard government in 2001.

The discussion paper says Australia’s spy agencies, including ASIO, ASIS and the DSD, require this expansion of powers to “deal with current and future national security challenges”.

Now only ASIO is authorised to spy on Australian citizens, but the proposals seek to expand this to allow ASIS and DSD agents to also spy.

But, as the discussion paper inadvertently points out, while trumping up the achievements of ASIO and the other spy agencies, the current surveillance and interception laws are already working.

The paper even says the arrest and prosecution figures listed “may underestimate the effectiveness of interception because a conviction can be recorded without entering the intercepted material into evidence”.

By far the most contentious issue is the requirement for internet and mobile service providers to keep data for up to two years.
Similar laws in the European Union require data to be stored for six months, and these laws have come under fire from civil liberties groups in Europe because of their intrusion into civil liberties and privacy.

Government departments and private industry have a very poor record for protecting the privacy of individuals.

Early last month, a contractor responsible for running the government’s Stay Smart Online website lost a DVD in the post containing the names, email addresses, memorable phrases and passwords of about 8000 subscribers who, ironically, had signed up for a newsletter about staying safe online.

Telstra was found to be sending the browsing habits of their Next G mobile customers without its consent to a third party company in the US. Telstra claimed this was because it was developing a new internet filtering system and that user privacy was not being compromised. Once the practice was brought to light, Telstra quickly made the program opt-in.

These are just two of the most recent examples of privacy breaches and are just the tip of the iceberg — in Australia and overseas — where the privacy of individuals has been compromised and the repercussions for such breaches have been minimal.

Despite the discussion paper paying lip service to protecting the rights and privacy of individuals, it contains few specifics on how this would be achieved.

This means Australians should be concerned and thoroughly sceptical about the prospect of more government spying and all their online and communication information being stored for two years.

The anti-terrorism laws and expansion of ASIO’s powers that were introduced in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, which drastically curtailed civil liberties and were couched as being exceptional, are still in effect. This should give great cause for concern about the current proposals.

Even if they are not passed in the near future, they indicate the need for constant vigilance to protect privacy and civil rights from government spying and monitoring.