Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon unleashed a wave of criticism yesterday, from the humorous to the serious, when she suddenly amended her position on data retention. This move responds to the wishlist of new powers requested by agencies such as the Australian Federal Police and Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation under the banner of the National Security Inquiry. The Tax Office is also enthusiastic about the changes.
The data retention proposal in its current form is the pre-digital age equivalent of Australia Post recording the sender and receiver of every letter and parcel, on top of libraries, bookshops, news-agencies and video stores noting the title of every book, magazine, newspaper and video bought, borrowed, watched and read. Vast quantities of data will be stored by telecommunications providers for two years — although it is unclear who will pay for it all. Data retention as it stands is not a complete spying policy, but thanks to modern communication tools, it might as well be.
Armed with this metadata law enforcement and spy agencies can build a comprehensive picture of the likes, dislikes, friends, habits, interests, banking and spending details — even the minute-to-minute whereabouts — of every single Australian citizen who uses the internet via personal computers, tablets and smart-phones.
Criticism was also directed at Roxon’s about-face on the issue. She avowed a lukewarm attitude on data retention as recently as July. But in front of a sympathetic audience at yesterday’s annual Security in Government conference, hosted in Canberra, Roxon’s stance had shifted.
"As you will be aware, there has been a lot of press coverage about one component of the reforms and that is data retention," Roxon told the assembled public servants, police officers, spooks and allied trade representatives. "Many investigations require law enforcement to build a picture of criminal activity over a period of time. Without data retention, this capability will be lost."
If Labor decides to back the proposal, its passage through Parliament and into Australian law looks to be smooth. We know this because two weeks ago Labor and the Coalition passed a raft of similar measures through the federal Parliament that also go a long way to compromising the privacy of Australians.
The Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 gives law enforcement and security agencies a range of sweeping new powers to secretly spy on Australian telecommunication systems — and to share the information gathered with foreign governments. Foreign governments are also granted the power to request information be gathered on their behalf.
This is worrying for those escaping repression in another country and for their friends and family who remain, and for those accused of committing online offences under the jurisdiction of a foreign power. The United States has demonstrated an increasing propensity for seeking the extradition of non-US citizens for breaches of US laws.
Online entrepreneur and former hacker Kim Dotcom sits awaiting just such an extradition in New Zealand after the US government seized servers from his Megaupload service in January and requested the New Zealanders send in the SWAT teams. In response, Dotcom has put up a vigorous legal fight and waged a sophisticated social media campaign.
Not all those targeted by the Americans command Dotcom’s economic and public relations resources. Richard O’Dwyer, a British man accused of sharing links to copyright infringing material, is also fighting extradition. Since Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales added his voice to a petition calling on the UK government to reject the request, close to 250,000 signatures have been gathered.
When the Greens’ Senator Scott Ludlam tried to limit the information-sharing capacity granted by the Cybercrime Amendments, specifically when factors such as the death penalty come into play, his amendments were blocked. Labor and the Coalition again combined their numbers to prevent any changes to the legislation.
But the news isn’t all rosy for those who want access to Australians’ collective data and communications. The cybercrime amendments prompted an unforeseen reaction. Online activists aware of the far reaching potential of the bill rallied and formulated a fightback within hours. Dubbed "Cryptoparty," the simple plan involves those with knowledge of encryption getting together with those who do not to share skills, much like an old-school LAN-party, but focused entirely on keeping online communications, and offline data, private.
Within days of its inception on 22 August, the Cryptoparty concept went global with plans laid to host events from Kuwait to Israel, Germany to the United States. The first round of Cryptoparties have since been held in Berlin, Canberra and Sydney with many more planned for late September.
Melbourne’s Asher Wolf, an online journalist and self-described "big can of whup-ass for the surveillance state," coined the term Cryptoparty as a Twitter hashtag on the night the Cybercrime Amendments passed the Senate.
She has since been instrumental in promoting the concept, linking up others to create online infrastructure in the form of wikis and IRC chat channels.
"When people from Iraq, Tunisia, and India started talking about setting up their own CryptoParties … I was honestly a little blown away. It was just a funny, little idea, tweeted from a couch in suburban Melbourne," Wolf told New Matilda.
"It makes me kind of happy to know people are taking responsibility for their own privacy."
Cryptoparty has also attracted the attention of non-activist professionals, including journalists and doctors. The former have shown interest in securing sensitive data from prying government eyes and protecting sources, while the latter raised concerns about unwanted access to medical records.
"Nine out of 10 people are concerned about identity crime," Roxon told the Security-in-Government conference. She may be right, but if yesterday’s reaction is any guide, it is not the "criminals and terrorists" Australians are most worried about prying unrestricted into their identities, it is government.
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