news The Australian division of digital rights political movement the Pirate Party has slammed Federal Government plans to “unjustly” boost online surveillance powers by law enforcement agencies, describing the initiatives as “steps towards a police state”.
Last week, Attorney-General Nicola Roxon revealed a wide-reaching program to substantially reform its telecommunications interception and surveillance powers with the aim of bolstering the ability of law enforcement organisations to fight crime, including the introduction of a so-called “data retention” scheme that has attracted a great deal of controversy in Australia under the ‘OzLog’ banner.
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. The Government is also 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.
Roxon said that the “potential” reforms would be examined by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security through public hearings, noting that this was “the beginning of the process”, and that the Government was seeking “diverse views” before determining which legislative reforms it would pursue.
However, in a statement released this morning, the Pirate Party Australia said it was “furious” about the proposed legislative changes. “It seems to now be a weekly occurrence that the Government adds a new act to its ‘security theatre’,” said Brendan Molloy, Pirate Party Australia Secretary. “If the Gillard government cares so dearly about citizen input, why were expansive changes to the ASIO Act – changes that would potentially allow ASIO to target Wikileaks – pushed through last May without public inquiry?”
“Nothing about warrants should be streamlined. It is an affront to due process to weaken judicial principles in the name of ‘counter-terrorism’, which seems to be the catch-cry of anyone unjustly wanting more power. We oppose these steps toward a police state.”
The party noted that it also stood strongly against any data retention regime, on the grounds that it was “an unreasonable invasion of privacy and human dignity”. “Under the proposal ISP’s will be required to store all communications for two years so ASIO can go through our personal data at their leisure. This is akin to the post office opening and photocopying all mail before sending it on to its destination.” said Simon Frew, Pirate Party Deputy President. “The previous Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, tried to pass similar legislation but backed away after a significant public backlash.”
“If the goal of the ‘war on terror’ is to defend ‘Western values’ we have to ask ourselves what those Western values are. Many of the rights and freedoms we have enjoyed are being taken away from us in the name of ‘national security’. With legislation like this we are losing our right to privacy and our right to due process. The attacks on the Occupy movement demonstrate the erosion of our right to speak out. Increased government secrecy is an attack on the fundamental right to know what our government does in our name. All of this is leaves us with the question: ‘have the terrorists won?'”
The Pirate Party isn’t the only political organisation to have instantly registered protest against the changes.
Last week, Greens Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam said the Greens welcomed a public consultation on the proposed changes, but added that the Attorney-General’s Department was “notorious” for “cheerfully ignoring” the advice of experts, interest groups and the general public when it came to consultations. “This looks like an ambit claim for surveillance overkill, but nevertheless, the Australian Greens will work closely with legal and privacy experts as well as ISPs and concerned citizens to turn back this unwarranted invasion of Australians’ online privacy,” he said.
Of particular concern was the Government’s data retention plans.
“Today’s announcement starts the next chapter of the ‘data retention’ debate (#ozlog) which the Government should have backed away from,” Ludlam said in a statement. “This is the idea 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 is premised on the unjustified paranoia that all Australians are potential criminal suspects.”
Ludlam highlighted the fact that the Australian public only knew about the data retention scheme plans ahead of time because of a “courageous” leak.
That whistleblower understood that giving data retention powers to law enforcement and intelligence agencies undermines the very rights and liberties they are ostensibly empowered to protect,” Ludlam said. “Data retention as envisaged by this government will entrench enormous databases that can be mined for precise patterns of our movements, purchases, interests, friends and conversations. This interception, copying, recording and disclosure of our data is a means to retroactively police the whole population.”
The Pirate Party’s opposition on this issue is somewhat predictable; the party notoriously jumps up and down whenever there is a civil liberties or privacy political issue with relation to the Internet which pops up. However, what is interesting about this situation is the changing dynamic of the players in the public discourse around Internet rights in Australia.
It used to be that if there was an issue of digital rights in Australia, that Electronic Frontiers Australia would instantly and loudly speak up on the issue. This was certainly the case regarding the Government’s controversial Internet filtering plans. However, over the past year the EFA has taken a bit of a backburner on these kinds of issues. Now, whenever these kinds of issues arise, it appears that it’s more the Greens and the Pirate Party Australia which are raising their voices on the issues of digital rights and privacy.
I have somewhat mixed feelings about this fact.
On the one hand, it’s fantastic to have the Greens, who have a strong, mainstream voter base, campaigning constantly for digital rights. And it’s also great to have a relative fringe group such as the Pirate Party (although, as we have noted previously, its policies are actually also pretty mainstream in 2012) active constantly on this front as well.
But the EFA had always stood apart as somewhat of an independent organisation which reached out to all sides of politics on these kinds of issues, and sought to present essential truths about the nature of the Internet, without an overt political background (apart from its strong libertarian streak).
Personally, I would like to see the EFA try to find its voice on these kinds of matters again over the next year. If the EFA loses its voice on digital rights permanently in Australia, especially the kinds of critical issues which the Attorney-General’s Department raised late last week, then the Australian conversation on such issues will be all the poorer.