news Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon has called for critics of the Federal Government’s proposed new data retention and surveillance package to take a “cold shower” and stop insulting in “hysteria” over the controversial proposal.
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, one new power is a data retention protocol which would require ISPs to retain data on their customers’ Internet and telephone activities for up to two years, and changes which would empower agencies to source data on users’ activities on social networking sites. Another power would see it made illegal for Australians to refuse to decrypt their data, and warrants are also to be simplified and streamlined.
In general, the package has attracted a significant degree of criticism from the wider community over the past few months since it was first mooted. Digital rights lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia has described the new powers as being akin to those applied in restrictive countries such as China and Iran, while the Greens have described the package as “a systematic erosion of privacy”.
In separate submissions to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security inquiry into the reforms, a number of major telecommunications companies including iiNet and Macquarie Telecom, as well as telco and ISP representative industry groups, have expressed sharp concern over aspects of the reform package, stating that “insufficient evidence” had been presented to justify them. And Victoria’s Acting Privacy Commissioner has labelled some of the included reforms as “being characteristic of a police state”.
The Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative and free market-focused think tank, wrote in its submission to the parliamentary inquiry on the matter that many of the proposals of the Government were “unnecessary and excessive. “The proposal … is onerous and represents a significant incursion on the civil liberties of all Australians,” wrote the IPA in its submission, arguing that the data retention policy should be “rejected outright”. And one Liberal backbencher, Steve Ciobo, has described the new proposal as being akin to “Gestapo” tactics.
However, in an interview on ABC Radio Melbourne yesterday with host Rafael Epstein, Roxon played down the proposal.
“… there’s been a lot of reporting of this that’s been incredibly inaccurate,” said Roxon. “What the Government has said is that our Federal Police, our intelligence agencies have asked us to consider some reforms in this area. They’re very contentious ones. There’s a difficult balance to be struck. Instead of us just saying, yes, and rushing those into the parliament, we’ve referred it to the parliamentary committee, the Joint Intelligence Committee. No decisions have yet been made.”
“But what they’re asking for is not what has been reported. It’s not to keep a record of every website that’s visited. It’s not to keep the content of every email. It’s not to force people to give their passwords to police. It’s actually keeping what’s called metadata; so, a record potentially of the time that a phone call is made, the time or fact of an email being sent. Something that our law enforcement agencies can already do, where they suspect crime. All we’re debating is whether or not there should be a requirement for telecommunications companies to keep that information for a certain period of time.”
Roxon said there was a “sort of almost hysteria” that had been created, that the Government was “going to be in your head virtually for everything you ever use on the computer”.
“All I’ve been very clear about, and said this again yesterday, is I don’t want new technology to create a safe haven for people who are intent on committing crimes or causing enormous risk to the community,” the Attorney-General added. “I don’t want there to be some no-go zone. So we’ve got to see how our laws are keeping up with new technology and to ask the question whether they need to be updated or not.”
“But I really do think people need a little bit of a cold shower with this because the Government has not yet made the decision. It’s why we’re having the inquiry so we can have the debate, test the ideas, see if there’s an appropriate balance. And we’ll only make our decisions at the end of the year when the committee gives us their report.”
Roxon’s comments this morning illustrate that the Attorney-General does not quite understand the reasons why so many organisations — dozens of them, in fact — have filed strongly worded protests against the Government’s proposed data retention and surveillance laws.
It is a rare day indeed when the free market Institute for Public Affairs and the Greens are in agreement about an issue, or when you receive 170 submissions to a parliamentary committee on a proposed piece of legislation, almost all universally damning the proposal. The fact is that the Government is currently proposing an unprecedented level of surveillance on the Australian population, which will be default result in a massive database on their online activities, ranging from telephone calls to every email sent and received and even social networking sites.
It’s not “hysteria” if a government privacy commissioner describes a government proposal as being akin to a “police state”. It’s not “hysteria” to point out that ISPs such as AAPT have already had their databases compromised, and that this new huge database would likely be compromised as well. It’s a warning — a warning to a Labor Government which has consistently tried to impose Internet control over the Australian population over its terms in Government, from mandatory Internet filtering to data retention to criminalising people who decline to decrypt their data for law enforcement agencies to examine.
And it’s a warning that Roxon would do well to start taking more seriously. This issue is not going to go away.