Watch what you say

SCOTT LUDLAM is a Greens Senator for WA, based in Fremantle. In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED Senator Ludlam reveals the extent of government snooping on our private communications—and Labor and Coalition reluctance to question it.

This month, thanks to US whistleblower Edward Snowden, ordinary citizens around the world learned that through a spy software known as PRISM we can be recorded every time we go online or use a telephone.

Locations from where we make our calls, emails and internet searches are logged—along with their duration and the identity and location of other parties— as is the content of our phone calls, video chats, emails and internet searches.

We learned all these communications can be stored indefinitely by secret service and intelligence agencies—and by private companies contracted to assist in the enormous task—for purposes yet to be clarified.

Take a moment to think this over. It means every text message or call to your spouse or girlfriend may be recorded, in perpetuity. Every site you look at on the internet, every purchase you make, every comment you make and every person you ever contact or receive contact from—recorded.

That flippant comment you made online about the prime minister stored—forever.

The guy refitting your kitchen whom you discovered halfway through the job has underworld connections is now logged as one of your “frequent contacts”.

Your intimate comments to a loved one, surfing of medical websites for advice on an embarrassing condition, discussions with family members about private family matters, advice from accountants, superannuation firms, counselosr or doctors may all be recorded forever, by anonymous strangers, for purposes they are yet to explain.

In a world where we increasingly communicate online, having your every electronic communication recorded is not unlike being under video surveillance 24-7. In some ways more detail about your private life can be recorded from electronic communication devices than from video cameras installed in every room of your house and public place.

Don’t get me wrong—I am all for the police and other authorities having full access to whatever surveillance capabilities exist if there is a suggestion of terrorism activity or organised crime. This is why search warrants exist, so those agencies can show cause as to why they need to intrude on your privacy.

But I question whether each and every one of us should have all our electronic communications watched and recorded, all the time.

Along with the potential invasion of the privacy of ordinary citizens I am concerned about what this massive scale of surveillance means for the functioning of democracy.

From time to time journalists, politicians and others receive sensitive information that intelligence agencies, both here or overseas, may or may not want revealed but which it is in the public’s interest to know.

What implications for our democracy does this mass over-reach in surveillance activity by Australian and US secretive intelligence agencies hold?

These questions are being raised internationally, with Canada’s privacy commissioner expressing “significant concerns”, Germany’s justice minister warning “the more a society monitors, controls and observes its citizens, the less free it is”, a UK parliamentary committee flying to the US to demand answers and the European Commission demanding the US government guarantee privacy is respected.

However, here in Australia intelligence agencies—whom I have been questioning for a long time about their growing budgets and quietly expanding plans for retaining citizens’ private data—have been scuttling for cover, and in that they have had the full support of a supine Labor government and Coalition opposition.

While the old parties sleepwalk on this issue I’ve been working with organisations and inspiring individuals to uphold the rights of citizens to privacy, and to achieve some degree of accountability from spy agencies.

When Snowden, a staffer for a company contracted to the US National Security Agency revealed the NSA was using PRISM to gather vast amounts of material from US telcos it sent shockwaves around the world, because we learned PRISM was monitoring the US-based servers of nine companies, including Yahoo, Skype, Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook.

Since the US, UK, NZ, Canada and Australia make up the “five eyes intelligence network”—an arrangement to share intelligence data—analysts have concluded data being collected using PRISM in the US is being shared here.

What’s not yet clear is whether Australian telcos have secret arrangements with the Australian Signals Directorate (our equivalent to the USA’s NSA), or whether ASD is intercepting these companies’ telecommunications without their knowledge, as has apparently been the case for the past six years for US companies.

I asked a series of questions in parliament about the PRISM scandal’s implications for Australians and received evasive answers from the government straight out of ‘Yes, Minister’.

I called on Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus to detail on PRISM’s implications for Australia but the motion failed due to lack of support from the old parties.

I introduced a Bill in the Senate to require government agencies to get a warrant if they wish to request telecommunications data, but they also rejected this.

At this point, the Greens continue to be the only party in parliament pushing back on the widespread surveillance of Australian citizens and the treatment of Australia’s privacy principles as meaningless.

Watch this space.

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