NSA spy scandal: Turnbull, Ludlam demand answers



news Several of Australia’s most high-profile politicians in the telecommunications portfolio have publicly demanded answers from the governments of the United States and Australia in the wake of news that the US National Security Agency had obtained open access to private data held by US technology giants such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft.

Late in the week, UK newspaper the Guardian published classified documents created by the agency, which stated that the NSA was able to gain “direct access” to the servers of companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo and Skype. The access allowed US officials to collect information including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats.

Subsequently, the New York Times reported that the US Government had used the system to collect information on non-US citizens overseas for nearly six years. The revelation of the move has caused outrage online, amongst the general public as well as those specifically interested in digital rights and privacy online.

In the wake of the revelation, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Greens Senator and Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam have demanded answers from the governments of Australia and the US, in relation to the scandal.

“Australians will be very troubled by the allegation in The Guardian and The New York Times that the US National Security Agency is engaged in large scale, covert surveillance of private data belonging to non-US citizens held by American companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Youtube,” said Turnbull in a statement.

“I think Australians have always understood data housed on US servers is subject to US laws such as the Patriot Act, but the Guardian story about the so-called PRISM programme suggests there is extensive surveillance and interception of foreign citizens’ data without a court order and indeed without the knowledge of the internet companies themselves.”

Turnbull said he had “raised the matter with the US Government’s representatives in Australia and sought clarification”.

“These reports have potentially very significant commercial implications,” the Liberal MP said. “There is a massive global trend to cloud services. The vast majority of the cloud service providers are US companies. These companies have, with US Government support and endorsement, been promoting their services globally, and have sought to allay concerns that data hosted by them would have less privacy protection than it would in Australia.”

“Today’s reports elevate those concerns to an even higher level especially since it has been alleged that foreign-owned data hosted by US Internet companies has lesser protection than data belonging to US citizens.”

Similarly, Ludlam called upon the Australian Government to disclose whether or not it had access to private information on Australian citizens using the so-called PRISM program mentioned in the reports by the Guardian and the New York Times.

“A number of the tech companies are denying that they’ve ever heard of PRISM or that US intelligence agencies have installed ‘backdoors’ in their servers,” Ludlam said in a statement.

“Australians use these services to the point of ubiquity. Does the Australian Government believe it is appropriate that the US intelligence agencies appear to be engaged in warrantless realtime surveillance of the entire online population? Does the Australian intelligence community have access to this material? And is this the reason the Attorney Generals Department have been so insistent that Australian ISPs institute a two-year data retention regime?”

“This is a major example of the important role whistleblowers play, and it is unfolding with the trial of whistleblower Bradley Manning under way in the United States, and just one day before the anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s 1984. It wasn’t intended to be an instruction manual,” Ludlam concluded. The Senator has filed the following questions to the Attorney-General on PRISM:

  • Is the Australian government or any of its law enforcement agencies aware that the US National Security Agency and the FBI are utilising a back door program called PRISM to tap directly into the central servers of U.S. Internet companies to source meta and content data information without warrants?
  • Has information obtained without warrant by the FBI or NSA on Australian citizens using PRISM such as audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs or other material been shared with Australian law enforcement or intelligence agencies?
  • Does the Australian Government believe it is appropriate that the US intelligence agencies appear to be engaged in warrantless real time surveillance of the entire online population?
  • Are the communications and information held by Australian government, law enforcement and intelligence agencies also collected or is there an agreement to prevent the use of PRISM or other back door programs?
  • Are the communications of Australian Federal Members of Parliament protected from or vulnerable to the PRISM program given the use of Microsoft programs in Parliament House and electorate offices?
  • How do the Australian Privacy Principles apply to Australian customers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple?
  • Has the Australian government ever offered immunity from legal proceedings to companies that open their servers to data intercepting efforts by Australian intelligence organisations?

Nothing — nothing! — would surprise me about US Government Internet surveillance efforts, and I would also not be surprised to hear that the Australian Government — particularly the Attorney-General’s Department and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation — had some knowledge of this.

We’re starting to see a pattern here. Over the past few years, it has become apparent that the security agencies of most first-world governments fundamentally see the Internet as a massive surveillance tool and an opportunity to stop crime, possibly even before it happens, through the mass surveillance of almost universally innocent civilians. The only thing we should be surprised about at this point is that there was a whistleblower courageous enough to inform reputable newspapers such as the Guardian and New York Times about the situation.

I don’t expect that we will get any real answers from the inquiries made by Turnbull and Ludlam this week, although it is always possible that either ASIO or AGD would have something to say on the matter in one of those compulsory Senate Estimates hearings that the agencies hate so much.

I guess at this point we have to hope that the exposure on this case in the US has the effect of helping to stop this comprehensive Internet surveillance. As a first step, I’d like to see companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft and others come completely clean on just how they are cooperating with the US Government. These companies may be headquartered in the US, but they have just as much responsibility to global citizens who use their products as they do to US citizens. The use of a cloud computing service should not come with a compulsory NSA login to your account. That would seem to be a fundamental truth which almost everyone can agree with.

This issue also raises the question: Where is it actually safe to store your email, these days? The US cloud computing giants all seem to have backdoors to the NSA, and the Australian Government is making sure they can access all emails through the planned data retention initiative. Is anywhere safe from universal government surveillance? Perhaps Switzerland? Or perhaps New Zealand?


  1. Is anyone really surprised by the revelations?
    Way back in the 1990’s the NSA and DSA where working on massive days gathering techniques. (Had a friend working at DSA).

    There have been numerous documentaries on phone intercept trawling with rumours that places like Pine Gap where involved in such activities.

    I’ve always treated anything posted online as fair game pretty much.
    (I used to be involved with EFnet #warez and we ended up using PGP encrypted chat for a while due to concerns like this.)

    I am not surprised in the least by the revelations.

    • Agreed Simon, while it is troubling to see evidence of such behaviour there is no real surprise or even revelation here – everything you do online, everything you write, everything you store on the cloud or transmit via email or messaging service is fair game for US intelligence and law enforcement. If you want to keep data private you use heavy encryption on local storage. If you want to ensure communications remain secure you use encrypted point-to-point tools.

      BTW, if you think your encryption will stop the NSA you’d better think again – way back in 2007 a paper was published demonstrating the technical feasibility of realtime 2048 bit encryption circumvention. It was postulated that given the NSA spends around 4bn on spy satellites, they would spend the 6bn estimated on the machine required to allow them to decrypt the comms they were eavesdropping on.

    • Couldn’t agree more. I think left-wing comedian Bill Maher summed up the situation perfectly yesterday:

      “The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of American using data provided by , the NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans most of whom are not suspected of any crime”

      That quote was from May 11th 2006.

      “It appears the only real difference between then and now is that now we can put a name to it, PRISM.” – Bill Maher.

  2. This is what happens when the media lets governments push bills through without giving them proper scrutiny. Where were the media when the Patriot Act was being pushed through Congress and no one was allowed to criticise it?

    • No, the citizens allow government to get away without scrutiny, you can’t transfer responsibility to the media nor anyone else. It is everyone’s responsibility.

        • our* agent of scrutiny of our governments

          In other words, they are entrusted by us to scrutinise our governments.

          • You entrust whoever you want to entrust, if that be the media then you made that choice.

          • For the majority of the population what realistically are the options, the MSM like any good con artist delivers just enough times to give the appearance of trustworthiness and believability, as with Politicians and Government especially Security Organisations

  3. Apparently the power to do this stems from the McCarthy era, well pre-dating the Patriot act.

    Google etc have all come out denying the claims though so I don’t know what to think.

    Even if the USA had back doors, you would think the actual data traffic would be noticed.

  4. It used to be that one country infringing on the rights of another country’s citizens on a wide scale started wars.

    Why is it suddenly acceptable practice?

      • This. The USA is the tyrant of the world; that the USA itself is ostensibly a democracy simply means that it is a tyrant that can occasionally (potentially every four years) change its mind about how it treats itself and the rest of the world.

        *ehem* I, for one, welcome our new American overlords.

  5. So who is looking out for the rights of Australians ? What gives these people the right to snoop on our private lives . I am sorry but the Australian Government has to do some serious arse kicking here , i don’t want the u.s anywhere near our country anymore. The absolute disrespect this shows for law abiding citizens is an OUTRAGE !

    • why? your data is stored and processed on/through US soil – so their laws apply. and they have enough of them to not need warrants or be able to use the generic ones to go looking for whatever they want.

      and just because its made available doesnt mean they accessed it, or perhaps it does and your data didnt match what they were looking for.

      seriously, they have the patriot act the homeland security act (since 2001/2) and several others, do you really expect them to not use them after all this time?

  6. “The only surprising thing about this is that people seem to be so surprised.”
    “Is anyone really surprised by the revelations?”
    “there is no real surprise or even revelation here”


    Why the heck wouldn’t they do it when anything remotely to do with “surveillance” can be denied explanation; with a simple “We don’t talk about National Security Matters…”

    People are so stupidly faithful in their governments.

    “For your safety, let us spend an exorbitant amount of your taxes on creating and stockpiling a crazy arsenal of modern death machines.”
    “For your safety, let us disarm you of firearms.”
    “For your safety, let us spy on everything you do; guilty till proven innocent.”

    At least in “1984”, Big Brother’s camera couldn’t see your face in the dark. The author didn’t envision thermal cameras or night vision…

  7. It seems we are returning to the Lords & Kings era. We are only here to provide the elite (government types, corporate owners & the rich) the ability to wank their power. We are but fodder and as such much be inspected, surveyed and controlled. While technology was small this involved much effort and the west criticised the USSR etc for doing this while pretending that the west had real freedoms. But now the USSR has fallen and technology allows this to be done by computers the west has adopted this behaviour as its own. “Save the Children”, “Stop the terrorists” are the claims made to justify the west turning into the east but know this governments and those in power have always wanted the power and will do anything to get it ultimately. People are only the means to this power.

    We the people have to take this power away from these power wankers.

  8. “Barry” promised so much and has delivered so little. He’s looking dodgier than Bush and that’s an amazing feat! “Most open and accountable US government”…….my *rse!!!!!

  9. Luckily the Internet is open source and you can create your own protocols to send over TCP or UDP such as I2P http://www.i2p2.de/
    The I2P project was formed in 2003 to support the efforts of those trying to build a more free society by offering them an uncensorable, anonymous, and secure communication system.
    Many applications are available that interface with I2P, including mail, peer-peer, IRC chat, and others.

  10. Just another reason why we need out own local datacentres for cloud hosting.
    Not only protects your data from the Patriot-act shenanigans but also provides a performance boot being local and doubles our data security in general as a country. We should NOT be relying and trusting foreign based datacentres for our data managment.

    • +1

      … Well that’d help temporarily, until ASIO or the AGD give NSA and co. the keys.

      Unless we can somehow write privacy into our laws along with enforcing an almost militant defense of privacy. It’d increase foreign investment and cash flow into our country too (that’s important for the economists, right). We’ll eventually become the Cayman Islands of data!

      (And then I woke up.)

      • It’ll never happen….we’re too pally with the US, we’d give them to keys to the networks so they could snoop from the get go…

  11. I’m surprised that people aren’t surprised at the revelations but are surprised at people being surprised. Surprise!!

  12. I am happy to announce that secret surveillance data shows that the USA Government does NOT spy on its own citizens, only foreign ones like Australians. Likewise, the Australian Government never spies on its citizens, only foreigners like Americans.

    Then, being good buddy-buddy pals, they swap data!

    All good clean fun!

    • This ties in nicely with Simon’s mention of Pine Gap: that’s exactly what goes on there. I’ll never forget the photo of Mark Latham walking out of Pine Gap with a huge grin on his face… must be some awfully juicy local intel on offer there.

  13. I have in my hand the official government response from the AGD and/or ASIO and/or ASIS
    “The Goverment does not publically comment on matters of National Securitry”

    C’mon, do you expect anything different?

    Also a big +1 to the “no surprises here” opinion/analysis. Anyone who knows anything about the internet and online privacy knows that only the most naive of criminals/terrorists/bad guys would use social media for their ill conceived plans and ideas.

  14. People,
    This is crazy, NSA has had access not just to all private data in the US, but private data all around the world. There are secret (manned) listening posts in Australia, looking at all data, and multiple posts in NZ, at Atlas F facilities. There are for instance about 1000 listeners in an Atlas F facilities deep in the southern alps, that the NZ government 10 years ago has no clue even existed.
    NSA spy on local data is nothing new, its just now, just about everyone on the planet is exposed, whereas in years past it would have been mainly US Citizens only.
    All mobile phone calls in Australia are screened (filtered for relevant information), which the telco must do or allow through government regulations. If you think you are secure by using a mobile network, then think again.
    However is good that the government is asking questions, but its all a smokescreen, on what is happening IMBY. That’s the real question. NSA is here in Australia and NZ, and the government is allowing them to spy. How many Atlas F facilities (at least 3).
    * North Island listening post,
    * South Island listening post, and
    * Alice Springs Escarpment listing post
    Highly secret.
    Just identify exact location and spy near entrance, and you will be shot at. That is all the proof you need.

    • Media reports are now saying the NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowdon, is either seeking or being offered, asylum in Iceland.

  15. There’s no such thing as “private” with respect to Internet. Hasn’t been for years. Only the illusion of. Anyone who has been around since the beginning knows this. It’s those who are post Internet that are surprised.

    The phrase SETEC ASTRONOMY comes to mind. There’s always a way.

  16. Orwell had a word for it: thoughtcrime. It is not safe to store your emails anywhere, since they have already been multiply copied in transit. Maybe now people will gain an interest in encryption… but I doubt it. And using encryption is prima facie evidence that you have something to hide.

  17. Think of it as a free backup service.
    Dear NSA my hard drive has just crashed would you be able to send me my emails.
    Many Thanks C

    • Clive,

      Unfortuantly it has come to our attention from one of our drive trawler teams that your files are in fact accesible and restoration is not required, technical details follow, as such we will not be providing restoration of them.

      We are the NSA do not appericate false requests for data restoration, as our resources could be better spent hunting for tax evaders and copyright infringers for the MPAA.

      As such, we regert to inform you that your status on our systems has been downloaded from Technically Capable Forgein Citizen of Allied Country to Hackvist Hostile Class 5. This change in status means that we will be increasing the scope of our survilance of you from email and random drive and traffic trawling to random drive and active traffic trawling. As you are no doubt aware, we do not allocate decryption resources to Class 5 threats, so we would appericate, for the safety of the United States and her Interests, you do not encrypt any traffic.

      Technical details:
      All files on primary system drive passed md5, sha256 and size based checksums where file was not modified or created since last trawl commited 2012-12-21.

      John Citizen
      NSA Public Relations Advisor

        • Clive,

          Of course! That’s why you had to pay cash for the Airfares and bribe 7 officals to get past the security checkpoints.

          John Citizen
          NSA Public Relations Advisor

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