Australian Government Moves to Expand Surveillance Powers
Australia is the latest democratic nation to introduce new national security measures that would vastly expand governmental surveillance powers, following an alarming legislative pattern that’s also unfolded in the United Kingdom and Canada in recent months.
Just as EFF sounded the alarm about the UK’s attempt to move forward with a mass surveillance bill and kept the pressure on before Canada’s online surveillance bill was temporarily shelved in the face of an outcry from privacy advocates, we’re ready to join Australians in pushing back against this latest bid for greater online spying powers Down Under.
Last week, Australian Attorney General Nicola Roxon submitted to Parliament a package of proposals intended to advance a National Security Inquiry in an effort to expand governmental surveillance powers. In a 60-page discussion paper, Roxon calls for making it easier for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to spy on Twitter and Facebook users, which would likely be achieved by compelling companies to create backdoors to enable surveillance. The proposals also revive a controversial data retention regime. And an especially problematic proposal would go so far as to establish a new crime: failure to assist law enforcement in the decryption of communications.
The bulleted list of proposed reforms, which Roxon submitted to Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security committee, reflects a wish list of Australia’s intelligence agencies. The discussion paper proposes to revise four laws relating to the surveillance activities of Australia's six intelligence bodies, at great cost to Australians’ civil liberties. The proposed changes are divided into three categories: those that the government “wishes to progress,” those it’s considering, and those it’s seeking advice on.
On a broad level, the discussion paper makes it clear that intelligence agencies are seeking nothing less than a radical overhaul of Australia’s wiretapping laws. “The magnitude of change to the telecommunications environment suggests that further piecemeal amendments to the existing Act will not be sufficient,” the paper states, in reference to the Telecommunications Interception and Access (TIA) Act of 1979. “Rather, holistic reform that reassesses the current assumptions is needed in order to establish a new foundation for the interception regime that reflects contemporary practice.”
If approved, the revisions would amount to what the Sydney Morning Herald characterized as “the most significant expansion of the Australian intelligence community's powers since … reforms following the terrorist attacks of 2001.” A readers’ poll that accompanied the article showed that 96 percent of respondents were opposed to any plan that would force telcos to store telephone and Internet data.
"These proposals are one of the biggest threats to the privacy of all Australians for many years,” said Nigel Waters, of the Australian Privacy Foundation and Privacy International. “Governments seem to have an insatiable appetite for more and more information about us all that is none of their business, and when history shows that they can't make effective use of the intelligence they already collect."
Concerned citizens have only until August 6 to weigh in on Roxon’s initial package of reforms. To have your say, go here.
The Return of Mandatory Data Retention
The proposed “OzLog” mandatory data retention policy, which Parliament rebuffed in May, sought to require Australian Internet service providers to store information about each and every individual’s web usage history for two years. EFF has been mounting resistance to mandatory data retention policies since before the European Union’s 2006 adoption of the highly controversial Data Retention Directive, and we continue to sound the alarm when similar proposals arise.
The attorney general’s paper references a “tailored” data retention scheme, which would nevertheless require providers to store data for a full two years. As a point of comparison, the European Union Data Retention Directive -- which has not been universally adopted and Courts in in Germany and the Czech Republic have declared unconstitutional -- requires data storage lasting just six months, with the possibility of an increase to two years in certain cases.
Data retention was included under the category of proposals the attorney general is “seeking advice” on, suggesting that it might not be politically tenable to charge ahead with the controversial measure with the same zeal as before. It was the inclusion of this agenda item that drew the strongest initial responses to the proposal.
"This inquiry will likely be used to again expand the powers of spy agencies when Australians are already under a phenomenal amount of government surveillance,” said Senator for Western Australia Scott Ludlam, Australian Greens communications spokesperson. "This extreme proposal is based on the notion that all our personal data should be stored by service providers so that every move we make can be surveilled or recalled for later data mining. It comes from a mindset that imagines all Australians as potential criminal suspects, or mindless consumer drones whose every transaction should be recorded and mapped."
Sounding a similar note, Rodney Serkowski of the Australian Pirate Party also seized on data retention as one of the most odious proposals. “It is not possible for the government to adequately ensure that the vast databases of highly personal data would not be at risk or subject to abuse of third parties,” he wrote in an email. “Indiscriminate data retention, as opposed to judicially sanctioned, targeted surveillance of a specific person for specific reason, is incompatible with human rights, and should never be considered legal or legitimate.”
New Rules for ISPs and Telecoms
The proposal would broaden online surveillance powers for Australia’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies by compelling Internet companies to make it easier for authorities to conduct digital eavesdropping efforts. “The exclusion of providers such as social networking providers and cloud computing providers creates potential vulnerabilities in the interception regime that are capable of being manipulated by criminals,” the discussion paper states. “Consideration should be given to extending the interception regime to such providers to remove uncertainty.”
Yet another proposal would sacrifice the privacy of law-abiding citizens for the sake of zeroing in on criminal suspects. It calls for allowing intelligence officials to tamper with a computer belonging to an uninvolved third party who is not under investigation in order to access a targeted computer.
To justify the dramatic expansion of surveillance powers, the discussion paper attempts to portray the intelligence agencies as helpless, claiming that a revolution in communications technology has rendered existing wiretapping laws outmoded and inadequate. “Substantial and rapid changes in communications technology and the business environment are rapidly eroding agencies’ ability to intercept,” the paper states. “Adapting the regime governing the lawful access to communications is a fundamental first step in arresting the serious decline in agencies’ capabilities.”
No New Surveillance Powers Needed
A radical expansion of police surveillance powers is not the answer. This proposal poses a serious threat to online privacy and it’s important to keep the pressure on, just as Canadian privacy advocates pushed back against a similar bill. The revisions floated in Australia’s National Security Inquiry should be met with stiff resistance from Internet users everywhere.
“These proposed changes, if implemented in their entirety, would appear to amount to a massive expansion of surveillance activity across the entire community, accompanied by a corresponding reduction in accountability for that surveillance activity, and are therefore a potentially significant threat to the civil liberties and privacy of all Australians,” Jon Lawrence of Electronic Frontiers Australia wrote in a recent blog post.
Bill Rowlings, CEO of Civil Liberties Australia, said the Australian Government seems to have found the straw that might break the back of the growing trend towards excessive surveillance in Australia. "People – your average Joe – are at last waking up that free speech and privacy matter, and are worth fighting for,” Rowlings said. “The 'Arab Spring' in the West might well be fought over such freedoms, rather than freedom of association, as in the Middle East."
Stay tuned as EFF continues monitoring this proposal.
 “Equipping Government Against Emerging and Evolving Threats: A Discussion Paper to Accompany Consideration by the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security of a package of National Security Ideas Comprising Proposals for Telecommunications Interception Reform, Telecommunications Sector Security Reform and Australian Intelligence Community Legislation Reform,” Australian Government Attorney General’s Department, pp. 17
 ibid., pp. 10
 ibid., pp. 27
 ibid., pp. 11
 ibid., pp. 23