George Brandis seeks to introduce invasive spying legislation, despite not understanding what it will actually do
Many people might think twice about sending an email or text message if they understood the point of a Federal government proposal to introduce a mandatory data retention scheme.
Federal Attorney-General George Brandis, a man who for years bemoaned the leaking of U.S diplomatic cables by Wikileaks as an “immoral act”, has recently proposed the establishment of a data retention scheme which will invade the privacy of millions of Australians on a truly industrial scale.
Hypocrisy, it would seem, is the order of the day in sunny Canberra.
After making the announcement, sensitive about the sort of community disquiet that mass surveillance tends to inspire, the Minister hit the nation’s airwaves to sell the policy and hose down concerns about the types of data the government intends to ‘force’ internet service providers (ISPs) to collect.
In responding to a question on ABC talkback radio, Minister Brandis claimed the scope of any future data collection would be limited to “metadata… and basic billing type information”.
When this statement is balanced against confidential briefings given to the telecommunications industry, the only conclusion that can be reached is that is grossly misleading and plainly incorrect.
In response to the minister’s comment, one of Australia’s largest ISPs, iiNet, released a statement detailing that their understanding of the reality of data retention is that it would extend well beyond “metadata” to the content of users’ emails and text messages.
On this basis, it would appear that the Attorney-General either has little understanding of his own proposal, or he is deliberately attempting to mislead the public about the scope of any proposed data retention scheme.
On either view, it would explain why iiNet claimed in its statement that it was “‘confused by the contradictory comments” being made by the Attorney-General’s department.
Unsurprisingly, if one of the largest ISPs seems confused, the average internet user should be highly sceptical of any proposed scheme.
Much like data retention, government claims about proposed supporting amendments to the ASIO Act, seen as a “step along the road” to data retention, come with scant evidence supporting their introduction.
The amendments, similar in scope to powers currently exercised by governments such as North Korea, radically expand ASIO’s surveillance powers by allowing them to outsource functions to private companies, spy on whole networks of computers, and introduce criminal sanctions for whistle-blowers that have the potential to land journalists in prison if they report on leaked material. Incidentally, in a concerning sign for those engaged in digital democracy, that would also include citizen journalists who republish leaked material.
Defending the proposed changes in a recent press conference, ASIO Director-General David Irvine cited ASIO concerns about the 70 so called “jihadist” Australians known to be fighting in the Syrian conflict.
Pushed for detail, Irvine claimed that ASIO concerns were limited to “some tens of people [who] have already returned”.
Taking into account a joint submission made to the inquiry into national security legislation by the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) and the Communications Alliance which estimated that data retention would cost the telecommunications industry up to $700 million to implement, one wonders if the resources could be more effectively deployed without invading privacy of, well, everyone.
Additionally, further claims made by Minister Brandis that the ASIO Act, originally introduced in 1979, is largely obsolete in light of the modern information age, seem confusing in light of the major amendments passed by the Australian parliament after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.
Of particular note during the period of post-September 11 reform are two changes to national security legislation made in 2011, originally dubbed the “Wikileaks Amendments”, that have since taken on a new meaning in light of revelations made by whistle-blower Edward Snowden of Australian involvement in US “mass surveillance”.
The 2011 amendments, among other things, radically expanded the power of ASIO to issue warrants and act on requests by Defence Signals Directorate (now ASD) and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) for collection of foreign intelligence within Australian borders.
These interception warrants link to provisions in the Telecommunications Interception Act which provide ASIO the power to tap any telecommunication infrastructure carrying “guided or unguided electromagnetic energy”.
It is arguable the warrants are so comprehensive that the only known form of communication device that could possibly be excluded from this definition, by way of its use of sound waves, are two cups and a length of string.
An essential ingredient in any healthy democracy is the ability for whistle-blowers to expose injustice without fear – this ingredient only becomes more important in an unhealthy democracy like Australia’s. The proposed sanctions for journalists within the ASIO amendments, and the ease with which whistle-blowers could be discovered through data retention intel, are what has inspired the establishment of Media Direct.
Media Direct is a new media project designed to allow whistle-blowers to safely and anonymously communicate with journalists, away from prying eyes.
Utilising the TOR network, the system encrypts files selected by the whistle-blower and then sends them, via a series of sneaky node-bounces, to a journalist who can only access them via an encrypted system. There are no logs, and after two weeks the files are automatically destroyed.
Still in its infancy, the project has signed up journalists from The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Crikey and The Australian.
Projects like Media Direct will hopefully show that in a world where the internet is ubiquitous feature of everyday life, democracy and technology come hand in hand.
The proposed data retention and ASIO amendments are morally dubious, economically foolhardy, and will represent a dark day for the “freedom” that people like George Brandis profess to hold dear.
Luke McMahon is a 3rd year JD student.