Metadata retention, government agencies without oversight, warrantless access to the actions of citizens - this is the backdrop Crikey’s Bernard Keane painted for how everyone’s use of the Internet will be controlled.
Keane told AusCERT delegates dusting his Friday morning plenary address they Attorney general’s department, along with ASIO and the AFP are the ‘most powerful and unaccountable bureaucrats in the country”.
Over the last year, the Attorney General’s Department (AGD) has been given over a billion dollars in addition to $1.6B given to the two security agencies. They have had their powers significantly expanded with little accountability because of their ability to “hide behind the cloak of operational Matters” according to Keane.
However, despite these expansions of powers and funding officials in these departments accept that there is no evidence the expanded powers in mass surveillance assists in the prosecution or prevention of serious crimes.
“Their fallback argument is that metrics such as crime clearance rates are not likely to reflect the benefits to security agencies of surveillance mechanisms like data retention. That is the effectiveness of a scheme that is justified by benefits it will bring to the investigation of crime can’t be assessed by the benefits it will bring to the investigation of crime,” he says.
So, given that the effectiveness isn’t going to be measurable, why do law enforcement agencies want the greater powers?
Keane says “Law enforcement agencies are applying a 20th century, analog mindset to the Internet. They grew up with the idea governments control communications”.
Although many traditional media and communications companies such as telco, postal, newspapers and TV may be in private hands, the number of owners is small and subject to regulation.
“Governments, in effect, controlled or could control if they needed to all the principal means of distributing information’” he adds.
Keane says the actions of the AGD are the greatest threat to us.
“It isn’t hackers or Chinese spies. It’s our own government. Hackers and malicious online actors are an opportunistic threat. But the government wants my data all the time, 24-seven”.
Further to this, the most recent data we have on how much metadata is already being accessed by security agencies is being suppressed in Keane’s view. He noted that despite regulatory obligations, the most recent data the AGD has made available is two years old.
The effect of data retention will have a “chilling effect on journalists” Keane says. Whistleblowers will realise it will be very difficult to contact journalists, activist or even politicians without leaving an electronic record. While there is popular view that whistleblowers approach members of the media, many go directly to politicians but they are not protected under the current legal regime.
Part of the challenge is Australian citizens do not have a statutory right to privacy. Although the previous government wanted this right, the AGD opposed this.
“A right to privacy could be a useful tool to have in the fight against data retention,” says Keane.
Despite the recent passing of data retention laws, Keane says the war is not lost. He expects the government to continue escalating its position and will seek to introduce stronger laws over time. Keane says it is important to fight against these changes. He noted that it took several attempts before the government was able to pass the new retention laws and that even after privacy advocates won a battle they needed to redouble their efforts against a determined AGD that has shown its persistence in pushing their agenda.
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