New surveillance powers akin to ‘China, Iran’


news Digital rights lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia has described the Federal Government’s proposed new surveillance and data retention powers as being akin to those applied in restrictive countries such as China and Iran, as the group and others have renewed calls for an inquiry into the powers to have its timeframe extended.

The Federal Attorney-General’s Department is currently promulgating a package of reforms which would see a number of wide-ranging changes made to make it easier for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to monitor what Australians are doing on the Internet.

For example, the Government is interested in establishing an offence which would allow Australians to be charged with failing to assist in decrypting encrypted communications. Also on the cards is a data retention protocol which would require ISPs, for example, to retain data on their customers for up to two years, and changes which would empower agencies to source data on users’ activities on social networking sites.

Instead of law enforcement agencies being forced to request multiple different types of interception warrants, the legislation would be modified to allow authorities to request a new more comprehensive centralised type of warrant with multiple powers. Provisions under the ASIO Act for the intelligence agency to request warrants are to be modernised and streamlined, and the agency is to gain the power to disrupt a target computer for the purposes of accessing the information on it — or even to access other third-party computers on the way to the target machine.

On July 9 this year, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which is to examine the proposed reforms, noted it had consented to commence an inquiry into the package, and was requesting submissions from the public into the package until 6 August this year – a window for submissions of only one month.

Speaking on ABC television last week, EFA executive office Jon Lawrence said what the package amounted to was “a massive increasine in surveillance powers, with a corresponding decrease in accountability”. “What we’re seeing here is the sort of powers that probably fit better in a place like China or Iran,” he said. Both China and Iran are noted for being countries where citizens’ activities on the Internet and other communications channels are strictly controlled and monitored, especially in areas where citizens have the capacity to express dissent against the countries’ ruling governments.

In a separate statement issued late last week, the EFA added that it was “particular concern that with such a wide-ranging and potentially significant legislative reform, the community has been given a mere four weeks in which to digest the implications of the proposed changes and to make submissions to the Joint Committee.”

The changes represented “a potentially significant threat to the civil liberties and privacy of all Australians”, and the EFA would be working with other civil liberties organisations on the issue and releasing its comments on what it regarded as the most concerning proposals as it worked through the implications of the Government’s discussion paper on the issue, the organisation wrote.

Separately last week, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which is to examine the proposed reforms, rejected requests from interested parties to extend the short deadline for submissions to the inquiry. The Pirate Party of Australia and a number of other individuals and groups have requested an extension to the submission window for the inquiry, given the wide-ranging nature of the proposals.

Since the Committee rejected the proposed deadline extension, Greens Senator and Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam has added his voice to the calls for the deadline to be extended.
“I am writing to urge the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security to extend its formal deadline for submissions to the inquiry on Potential reforms of National Security
Legislation,” Ludlam wrote in a letter to Labor MP Anthony Byrne, the chair of the committee, last week, seen by Delimiter.

“Given it took several months for the Committee to consider the Terms of Reference proposed by the Attorney General, and given there is no reporting deadline, I hope that it might it be possible
to provide more than 4 weeks for experts, academics and concerned members of the public to respond to the 6-page terms of reference that involves complex matters of domestic and
international law. As the Australian Greens are not represented on your Committee, I wish to foreshadow my intention to make a submission to this Inquiry.”

I was pretty hard on the EFA last week on Twitter, slamming the organisation for failing to respond to the kind of online civil rights issues which this new package of reforms raises. It is good, subsequently, to see the organisation standing up on these issues, which really go to the core of why the organisation exists. In general, my broad opinion on the package of surveillance reforms promulgated by the Federal Attorney-General’s Department remains unchanged. As I have written several times now:

“In my opinion, a number of these legislative reforms are the nightmarish stuff that George Orwell’s extremely prescient book 1984 are made of.

Any one of the proposals in this huge surveillance package which the Attorney-General’s Department has proposed could be the subject of its own independent inquiry. Data retention, mandatory decryption of private data, the ability to remotely penetrate computer systems (even unrelated systems) to gain access to evidence … it’s all fairly Orwellian, and it’s all in this package. This whole process needs to be as public as possible. If you are at all interested in protecting your own privacy or even just preventing the Government from being automatically able to see whatever information it wants at any time about any Australian citizen without due cause and process, I recommend you get involved in this process and make a submission to this inquiry.

In addition, I recommend you contact your local MP about this matter, as this is a package which is sadly likely to be supported by both sides of Parliament — it is extremely unlikely that the Greens or the Independents will be able to block it.”


  1. As I said here:

    If these reforms had negligible costs associated with them, were vastly in the public interest, could be guaranteed to be safe from potential abuse or misuse of the data and could be quantifiably proven to improve not just the effectiveness of law enforcement, but the capturing of dangerous criminals and disruption of their imminently fatal activities, then they would have some reasonable basis.

    The facts, however, are that the reforms will be extremely expensive to implement (particularly data retention), they severely encroach on freedoms, rights and privacy of Australians, they will create a database of Internet usage unlike any other that will be a honey-pot irresistible to law enforcement, commercial enterprise and criminal elements alike, making the likelihood of misuse extremely high. They will make it an offence to hide any information, whether it be private, commercially sensitive or even potentially incriminating, from law enforcement, even if their search and seizure of your computers and data is merely a fishing expedition. They will trivialise the process of obtaining warrants for data tapping, surveillance and search and seizure of private property. But most importantly, they are unlikely to improve the effectiveness of law enforcement activities against professional criminals who will be aware of these laws and will quickly determine the easiest way to circumvent them will be to simply use a VPN connection beyond the jurisdiction of these laws.

    So after all these laws, all this cost, all that will happen is every Australian -not- going to extraordinary lengths to hide their data from the government will be under constant surveillance and monitoring, while actual criminals will simply be beyond the technical ability of the government to watch anyway. That sounds like giving up a hell of a lot of rights, allowing Big Brother into our lives in a highly invasive, unprecedented way without actually getting any increase in safety and security back in return.

    “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” –Benjamin Franklin

  2. I’m drafting a submission to the enquiry, in which I comment that the discussion paper pushes itself as “urgent reform”. However, “urgent” means “hasty” and as we have seen time and time again all over the world, hasty law is BAD law.

    Coupling AGD’s comments about urgency with the rejection of an extension for the inquiry just adds fuel to the suspicions which people rightly hold about covert agencies.

    At least they’re not trying to do this all by regulation, however.

    • Yeah great logic…

      I suppose you’ll suggest next, no one should ever buy a nice house or car, because of burgulars too :/

    • How?

      Seriously? What mechanism do you think the government will introduce that will enable them to do this any easier on the nbn than right now?

      I’d like to hear your technical explanation, I hazard a guess that you haven’t got one.

      • A single network, carrying everything (Internet, phone calls, EFTPOS and CC transactions and mobile phone backhaul) controlled by a government owned organisation makes the sort of surveillance the government is promoting very easy. Tapping end-users traffic will very likely will be built into the NBN from day one – or rather, the equipment they’re building it with has that capability out of the box, whether they want it or not.

        I think there is a high likelihood that ASIO et. al. are some of the biggest NBN supporters (other than this website of course!) because their dream is to be able to have evidence of past and future crimes available at no more than the click of a mouse button.

    • “Relax, they can do surveillance faster because of the NBN.”

      I’m sure what you actually meant to say was: Relax, you can avoid surveillance easier with the NBN.

        • And this is what floors me completely.

          People who will keep clinging to Labor and will accept these continual and horrid invasions of privacy for a faster net connection…

          First there was filtering, now this tripe… But hey, you can watch more TV while you leech ‘linux distros’ as the kids IM all night, whoop dee doo…

          Only the deliberately ignorant will continue to ignore the true cost of the NBN when hitched to the rest of Labor’s nanny state policies. POI’s (ie. centres where almost ALL traffic will route through) are prime locations for snooping/retention. Deep packet filtering, caches etc can all be placed in these centres and your ISP is upstream, so all of your traffic will go through them…

          How long until VPN is considered evading the law? It almost certainly will be if/when this policy comes in to force…

          Seriously people, wake the hell up. Loss of the right to privacy and due process is not worth a bloody fibre optic cable. I don’t like Abbott but I’ll take the Libs (which are supposed to be the right wing conservatives…) over Nanny Roxon and the rest of the Labor idiots any day of the year…

          @welsh – Mate, if they are going to implement intelligence dept’s recommendations for information gathering, in what universe to you think they won’t deal with VPN’s and encryption. It’s right there in the article,

          “For example, the Government is interested in establishing an offence which would allow Australians to be charged with failing to assist in decrypting encrypted communications. ”

          Encrypted communications covers VPN, TOR etc… Seriously, the Fed’s have been breaking in to undernet’s etc to go after paedo’s and organised crime for years, do you honestly think that there isn’t a single department who can think of VPN’s as an evasion tactic? Particularly when there are armchair experts in here spruiking how they are the panacea to this incursion on our basic right to privacy???

          Wake the hell up people. When did we turn in to a country of passive rollovers who would sell our rights for faster youtube??

          • “People who will keep clinging to Labor and will accept these continual and horrid invasions of privacy for a faster net connection…”

            It has nothing to do with some sort of privacy cost that needs to be paid for faster internet.

            The liberal party is no better when it comes to these privacy issues. They introduced the first round of anti-terrorism legislation.

            The people we can’t elect in other government agency’s are the one’s who will pressure every government to make these changes.

    • You know its silly tin-foil hat comments like these that really hold back proper discussion on really huge ROP issues like these.

      Instead of showing a unified and rational response to a draconian law our argument is washed down by these “conspiracy theories” and you loose all credibility because the opposition will just point out that one unsubstantiated comment and then brand the rest of the argument as invalid.

  3. One positive outcome would be if this became the spark for a wider adoption of encryption (PGP, HTTPS, etc.) in online communication. At the moment, most people blithely give their ISP a record of every single web search they perform, for example.

    Customers are given a very vague sense of what’s recorded about our activity, but if we all know for sure this stuff is going to be held for years for surveillance purposes (below the existing ‘signals intelligence’ level) and be much more option to corrupt/malicious use, that might be the impetus for people to be more careful about their activity.

    Google, YouTube, Twitter and Wikipedia are some examples of major sites that already support HTTPS, allowing for at relatively painless switch.

  4. With Juliar and Nicola in charge of driving this reform it sounds more like big sister than big brother to me.

    Next step will be to have Australia Post photocopy our mail.

    Thunder Bird.

  5. Relax guys, I’m sure this is nothing you couldn’t get around using a SIMPLE VPN connection to an international country in Europe, Or will these become illegal as well like I believe they are in China and Iran already?

    This is what blew a huge hole in the last round of government “filtering” propaganda this sounds like the same rubbish just with a different label attached to it last time it was “keep the kids safe from Porn or whatever” so they can get the starting point through create some new laws then butcher them overtime to get what they really want.

    What is the point in spending MILLIONS on a hack job of a internet filter or in this case ‘National security’ internet system that you can get around in 15 seconds with a stock standard VPN connection? I bypassed all the internet filtering / Network security during high school using either a VPN, Tricky proxies or remote desktop / Critix and Education Qld Employs I.T on a full time basis in conjunction with very expensive software to stop students like myself at the time from doing this.

    As we seam to following the trend of those countries, I’m interested in knowing how much of this filtering these other countries use are for “law enforcement” reasons and not their own political agenda?
    We’re all aware of what the go is in china.

    If anything this will just create an “underground” internet like that of the Peering world where by users can connect to a “Government free” system by the means of VPN or the likes.

    When it comes to the internet and there is a body or people let it be Government or otherwise that are doing something which another body of people don’t like or agree with they will build a way around it. Plain and simple.

  6. I’m going to say it again for all those who couldn’t be bothered reading the article before responding…

    For example, the Government is interested in establishing an offence which would allow Australians to be charged with failing to assist in decrypting encrypted communications.

    For example, the Government is interested in establishing an offence which would allow Australians to be charged with failing to assist in decrypting encrypted communications.

    For example, the Government is interested in establishing an offence which would allow Australians to be charged with failing to assist in decrypting encrypted communications.

    For example, the Government is interested in establishing an offence which would allow Australians to be charged with failing to assist in decrypting encrypted communications.

    VPN, TOR, offshore encyrpted connections etc, the plan is that you will be required by law to decrypt them or face charges. And no matter how good your encryption might be, if you use a hardline they will know there is traffic across your link. If they cannot determine what it is, they can request you decrypt it. Where will you be then?

  7. I can’t understand how an Attorney General, who is expected to know and uphold the people’s constitutional rights, can pen a signature to this sort of proposal.

    In an ideal world (in terms of fighting crime), the Government would like nothing more than to have a police officer residing in every home JUST INCASE a crime is committed. This proposal goes along the same lines, “give us the ability to track everyone JUST INCASE a crime is committed and we have no current leads nor evidence”.

    Every person that speaks out against this type of proposal is viewed as a conspiracy theorist, but only these conspiracy theorists know that once in place, this legislation can be rapidly expanded upon and be used in ways that weren’t originally thought of by current Government. What a horrible world our great grand children will live in. Who is to know what future Governments may do with these new laws, it’s up to us to stop it, the ones with the foresight to know that this is bad legislation.

    • “I can’t understand how an Attorney General, who is expected to know and uphold the people’s constitutional rights”

      I have no idea where you got that notion — in my experience their main job appears to be attempting to repeal what rights Australians have. I’ve followed half a dozen AGs through the Federal Govt over the years and they’ve all been the same — no matter what political persuasion.

      • Spot on mate. They are there to take away our independence and hard earned freedoms so that we spend most of our time working for somebody else’s benefit, if you disagree you starve to death.

  8. Here is a problem that seems to be overlooked,
    HTTPS can be intercepted via transparent proxy and other methods at the ISP level.
    In theory, they will have access not only to your online activities, but also all your financial transactions using online banking. Not to mention anything else you access using standard https. The potential for misuse of such a database is enormous.

    Note: in case you think this is just some more conspiracy nonsense, checkout this enterprise-grade software

    Note that they support ‘Inbound HTTPS Inspection.

    • That’s not true unless the ISP can also install a root CA certificate on your client computer (hint: they can’t).

      Corporate networks often intercept HTTPS via a transparent proxy, but that’s because on a corporate network, they can install their own root CA certificates on your computer (because they own it). Notice the software you linked to is “enterprise grade”. That is, it’s designed to run in an enterprise where the IT department has control of the client computers.

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