What the US spy scandal means for Australians

June 14, 2013
Journalist Glenn Greenwald speaks to media in Hong Kong.

Information revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden about the PRISM spy program — which used data from giant internet companies, such as Google and Facebook, to carry out mass surveillance of people outside the US — has provided new evidence about the warrantless spying on civilians by the US government.

Although a government spying on civilians is hardly new and will not come as a surprise to many people, what is concerning about this case is the size and number of companies involved and the apparent ease with which this data was obtained.

In seeking to reassure US citizens in the aftermath of the revelations about the PRISM program, US President Barack Obama said: “This does not apply to US citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States."

That is all well and good for them, but what about the rest of us?

When asked by Meet the Press presenter Stefanie Balogh on June 9 whether Australians should be concerned their information has been secretly collected, Australian foreign minister Bob Carr replied: "I wouldn't think so.”

When co-presenter Dennis Atkins pressed him further saying: "[Obama] says it’s only foreigners. Now, wouldn’t that include Australians?” Carr replied: "Dennis, I’d need to get advice on that.”

In an interview with Lateline on June 10, WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange went further. He said: "We must ask the question, and the Australian government must answer the question: how many Australians have been intercepted?

“In the relationship between the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) and ASIO and US Intelligence, has the Australian government been pooling that information about Australians?

“Is the Australian government involved in this warrantless interception program? Are there collection points in Australia? Have Australian companies been a part of this, having their information sucked out to the United States? Is this being done without a warrant? It is simply not acceptable.”

Clearly there are a lot of unanswered questions about this case.

Under Australian law, only ASIO has the authority to spy on Australian citizens, but the government is seeking to expand these laws.

In a discussion paper released by the attorney general last year, the government signalled it wanted to expand the powers of the DSD and ASIS to give them the authority to spy on Australian citizens.

That discussion paper also showed ASIO's interest in getting better access to communications data, the same kind of data that was being collected through the PRISM program. One of the most contentious proposals was to compel internet and mobile communications companies to retain their communications data for two years and allow that data to be accessible to security agencies.

These proposals show the kind of powers these agencies would like to have and are a cause for concern.

But what about the information they already have? The NSA already has an information-sharing agreement with the DSD through their close work at the Pine Gap facility in the Northern Territory.

The NSA has also been implicated in domestic spying on the Occupy movement in the US and ASIO has recently been targeting activists in Australia.

We have a right to be suspicious of governments like the US and Australia, whose internal spying through monitoring information about mobile phone calls and internet communication data is increasingly growing closer to the surveillance society depicted in George Orwell's 1984 than the supposedly free nature projected by these capitalist liberal democracies.

But we should also be suspicious of the corporations that collect our personal information through email and social media services given the access spy agencies are being granted to this information.

To be able to challenge these infringements on our rights we need a grassroots movement that can make it impossible for the power of the state to be imposed over the rights of the vast majority for the self-preservation of an unequal and unjust system for the benefit of a few.

Before we can get to that stage, we need to stand up for our rights and support the demonstrations for whistleblowers like WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and others, that expose the injustices of the system.

We also need to stand up to the injustices inflicted by spy agencies like ASIO against others: against refugees, and cases like Mohammed Haneef who was wrongly arrested and accused of being involved with terrorism in 2007.

All of us need to stand together and echo Snowden who said: "I don't want to live in a society that does these sorts of things".

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