You Are All Under Surveillance


The Government’s internet security plan to store the web history of all Australians for up to two years has been put on the backburner until after next year’s election — but new laws passed this week will allow police to compel telcos and ISPs to retain the records of people suspected of cyber-based crimes.

The Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 was passed by the Senate yesterday. This occurred before the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety got the chance to do its work and before the public was able to give evidence. Submissions for the inquiry into reform of national security legislation have only just closed.

It is likely that the inquiry will agree to the push for expanded powers, and that further legislative reforms will be enacted very early in the term of our next government, whether Labor or Liberal.

The haste to pass legislation before appropriate public and parliamentary debate reflects an international trend towards the enactment of harmonised laws to the detriment of national sovereignty.

Civil liberties groups are right to question whether the proposed changes will be used as a tool for turning open source data into intelligence to block whistleblowers, legitimate political dissent and political movements and to spy on the activities, interests and political views of innocent ordinary citizens.

Where does the impetus for legislative changes like these come from? Seldom do we see empirical data that supports claims for the expansion of such powers. The intended purpose is always publicly stated in the same way: we need to ensure that police and intelligence services keep technological pace with criminals and terrorists.

There are conservative sceptics of this approach: the Strasbourg Court, for example, has cautioned about "the risk that a system of secret surveillance for the protection of national security poses of undermining or even destroying democracy on the ground of defending it."

Attorney-General Nicola Roxon previously expressed concerns about the costs of the reform proposals. That’s something our friends in the United Kingdom now know only too well, as they push forward with their draft Communications Data Bill (dubbed "the snoopers’ charter") which is forecast to cost the taxpayer £2.5bn over the next decade. Home Office’s Peter Hill admitted in July, during the first hearing of the Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Data Bill, that the British government routinely sweeps up the identities of thousands of people in a given area — via a single request to a mobile phone network.

Lockheed Martin has made advancements in Web Information Spread Data Operations Module — with the appropriate moniker LM Wisdom  — which is marketed to "decision makers" as:

"a predicative analytics and big data technology tool that monitors and analyses rapidly changing open source intelligence data (newspaper feeds and social media content for example). This type of content has the power to incite organised movements, riots and sway political outcomes. LM Wisdom turns this data into actionable intelligence for our customers. Think of Wisdom as your eyes and ears on the web."

Lockheed Martin’s promotional video displays (albeit briefly) a list of "provocateurs" which includes ABC online, newser, Ray McGovern, Arutz Sheva, Land Destroyer, American Thinker and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The push towards increased surveillance is already well in motion in the United States as well as the UK and Canada. The surveillance intelligence industry is reportedly worth $5 billion a year and, as we know courtesy of WikiLeaks, provides the tools or location tracking, hacking, massive surveillance and data analysis.

In June this year New Scientist reported that the FBI is talking to software vendors and that the Department of Homeland Security in the United States already has a monitoring system up and running.

After examining the corporate social responsibility policies of companies that sell communications surveillance technology, Privacy International revealed that of the 246 companies in the communications surveillance industry, only 62 had publicly available CSR policies. Only four companies — less than 2 per cent — had policies that placed specific constraints on doing business with regimes that might use their technology to commit human rights abuses.

Whistleblower William Binney revealed the National Security Agency’s massive power to spy on Americans with the Utah Spy Centre containing huge databases to store all forms of communication collected by the agency, including private emails, mobile phone calls, Google searches and other personal data. He warned that the NSA’s data-mining program has become so vast that it could "create an Orwellian state."

This should be particularly disturbing when we now know that Australia’s cyber-spy agency, the Defence Signals Directorate, and the Australian Government Information Management Office have warned agencies that the Patriot Act allows the US government to access data held by American companies "without necessarily advising" the information’s owners.

ASIO will be keen to sign on to join their international partners on the data gathering spree. They’re ramping up the threat at home: on 21 August 2012 David Irvine, ASIO Director General, warned businesses to be more careful when it comes to warding off cyber-attacks.

Some people might be more concerned about "ASIO attacks". ASIO is not subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 1982. The Privacy Act 1988 does not apply to the disclosure of personal information to ASIO by other agencies, and while attorneys-general come and go the bureaucracy remains the same with virtually no scope for Australian citizens to hold it to account. This must be rectified.

ASIO has been criticised for making adverse security findings against innocent people. The "surveillance rate" for Australian citizens (per capita) by phone surveillance already is vastly greater than the rate for US citizens. If the current proposal is picked up after the next election ASIO will have the ability to "plant material on people’s computers, and destroy material and go through a third party’s computer to do so; criminalising refusing to cooperate with government decryption attempts and freeing up ASIO agents to break the law if it helps to stay undercover".

Walter Binney’s concerns apply as much to the data gathering activities of Australian security and intelligence organisations as they do to US organisations. By expanding the powers of organisations, without any properly established justification and without requiring independent monitoring of their exercise or any reasonable level of accountability, Parliament will be abnegating its responsibility to protect the rights and interests of the Australian people. It will be putting the future of the Australian people, and probably its own, in the hands of organisations and corporations.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.