news The WikiLeaks Party has written to Australia’s Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim formally complaining about the recently revealed news that the telco signed a secret agreement a decade ago with US Government agencies such as the FBI and the Department of Justice that provided American law enforcement with access to all of the telco’s traffic passing in and out of the US.
The text of Telstra’s deal was published last week by independent media outlet Crikey (PDF) and has caused consternation in Australia’s technology community, due to the breadth of the access provided by Telstra. Telstra was one signatory to the deal, which came about due to its joint venture Reach landing submarine telecommunications cable into the US.
In an open letter sent to the media last week, the WikiLeaks Party — which has no elected representatives in Australia, but is seeking election in the upcoming Federal Election — wrote to Pilgrim noting that it was making a complaint pursuant to section 36 of the Privacy Act, which allows for such complaints.
“The complaint concerns the conduct of Telstra in storing and delivering to United State security agencies data concerning its customers’ communications with that Country,” wrote WikiLeaks Party representatives Kellie Tranter (national council member) and John Shipton (chief executive). “We are writing as customers of Telstra. We are also a member of the National Council of the Wikileaks Party which has a strong interest in this issue.”
Reports in the media last Friday, the pair wrote, indicated that Telstra entered into an agreement in late 2001 with the US FBI.
“We are concerned that Telstra has breached the Privacy Act in disclosing without any knowledge or authorisation on [our] part, data about communications o the United States since that date. At no time since we have been a customer of Telstra has that organisation ever brought to [our] attention that it has entered into this agreement, and perhaps others since, which enable it to forward data pertaining to [us] to overseas security agencies. This lack of candour on the part of Telstra is deeply troubling and many millions of Australians would be in the same position as us.”
“We are happy to speak with one of your officers about the issue, and look forward to assisting you in your investigation.”
Since the details of the deal were released, a number of organisations concerned with digital rights and privacy have strongly criticised Telstra’s participation in the arrangement. The deal has the potential to impact even Australians who are not customers of Telstra, as it affects Telstra’s backbone cables to the US, which carry much of Australia’s international voice and data traffic in general.
The Greens called on Telstra to immediately disclose details of the deal with the US Government. “Telstra, at the time majority owned and controlled by the Howard Government, struck a deal to allow 24/7 surveillance of calls going in and out of the United States, including calls made by Australians. The cables in question are operated by Telstra subsidiary Reach, which controls more than 40 major telecommunications cables in the region, including cables in and out of China and Australia,” said Greens communications spokesperson, Senator Scott Ludlam.
“While the current Australian Government recently pushed then abandoned a two-year mandatory data retention scheme, for more than a decade this secret deal with the United States compelled Telstra, Reach and [joint venture partner] PCCW to store all customer billing data for two years. The deal also compelled Telstra, Reach and PCWW to provide any stored communications and comply with preservation requests; to provide any stored meta-data, billing data or subscriber information about US customers; to ignore any foreign privacy laws that might lead to mandatory destruction of stored data; and to refuse information requests from other countries without permission from the United States. “This secret deal also allowed FBI and US Department of Justice officials to conduct inspection visits of Telstra and Reach offices and infrastructure. “This is an extraordinary breach of trust, invasion of privacy, and erosion of Australia’s sovereignty,” said Ludlam.
At the time, the WikiLeaks Party issued a similar statement condemning Telstra’s deal with the US Government. WikiLeaks Party spokesperson, Omar Todd said: “Whilst these agreements appear to be entered into in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 Australians are entitled to ask the current board of Telstra whether or not it has entered into any further agreements with US security or intelligence agencies since that time.”
“Furthermore Telstra should come clean on the extent to which its customers’ privacy has been compromised by the 2001 agreement with the FBI and the US Department of Justice. The shareholders of Telstra in particular should be told by the company whether or not it is participating in the United States global intelligence gathering networks” Todd added.
The WikiLeaks statement said Crikey’s revelations also raised the question of whether or not other information or Internet service providers were also participants in sharing data with the United States.
“In light of recent revelations by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden that Australia has been participating in the United States PRISM program as part of the ‘five eyes’ intelligence-sharing network, customers of telecommunications companies and ISPs should be asking if their privacy has been compromised,” The WikiLeaks Party said.
“The WikiLeaks Party believes that all Australian telecommunications companies and ISP’s should be compelled by law to disclose to the Australian Parliament any arrangements or agreements that they have entered into with any foreign power to hand over or store metadata or other forms of private information about their customers.”
The Pirate Party Australia described the situation as “entirely unacceptable,” with the party’s lead candidate for the Senate in NSW, Brendan Molloy stating in a media release that Telstra’s action “must stop immediately”. “If what the media is saying is true, why is an Australian company colluding with the United States Government to spy on Internet traffic of Australians citizens?” asked Molloy. “The Government must answer why it has been complicit in the spying on of Australian citizens, as this began when Telstra was still partially Government owned.”
Delimiter invited Telstra to comment in detail on the matter and to provide an executive for comment. However, the telco declined, issuing only a brief statement:
“This Agreement, at that time 12 years ago, reflected Reach’s operating obligations in the US that require carriers to comply with US domestic law,” they said. “It relates to a Telstra joint venture company’s operating obligations in the United States under their domestic law. We understand similar agreements would be in place for all network infrastructure in the US. When operating in any jurisdiction, here or overseas, carriers are legally required to provide various forms of assistance to Government agencies.”
Unfortunately for Telstra, the issue of its secret deal with the US Government to provide access to a huge swathe of Australians’ telecommunications data passing through the US is not going to go away. The company’s glib passing off of the deal as merely seeing it complying with US domestic law is simply not good enough. Australians deserve to know more about this issue. It will be interesting to see whether Timothy Pilgrim picks it up. It’s certainly the kind of thing which any Privacy Commissioner — or, indeed, anyone who merely wants to have a private conversation — should be interested in.