AGD ASIO’s “puppet”, claims Pirate Party



news Digital rights political party the Pirate Party Australia this week claimed that a parliamentary submission made by the Attorney-General’s Department (AGD) arguing for substantially increased government electronic surveillance powers indicated that the Department was little more than a “puppet” and “lobbyist for law enforcement and intelligence agencies”.

Following a number of major revelations surrounding Australia’s electronic surveillance activities, especially associated with documents released by former NSA contractor and current whistleblower Edward Snowden, the Greens successfully teamed up with Labor in December to establish a formal Senate inquiry into Internet surveillance practices by government agencies in Australia, through a review that will take place into the controversial Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act.

The Greens appear to have taken the view that an inquiry into the potential future reform of the Act would lead to it being modernised and Australians receiving higher levels of privacy in terms of their usage of telecommunications services. Some submissions to the inquiry, including the submission by the Attorney-General’s Department, did include aspects focusing on the privacy aspect of reform. However, several different groups, especially the Attorney-General’s Department and law enforcement organisations such as police forces, have also used the forum to call for massively increased surveillance powers for Australian government agencies — even extending in some cases to a request for ISPs to keep records of users’ web browsing history.

The Pirate Party Australia claimed in its own submission to the review that the AGD was caught in a “form of regulatory capture whereby those charged with regulating [law enforcement and intelligence agencies] become advocates for or defenders of the retention and expansion of those agencies.”

“The Attorney-General’s Department has in the past argued on behalf of [those agencies] rather than take an impartial view — that is, the Department has advocated that … powers be expanded, including when providing evidence to inquiries on the matter,” the party said.

Fletcher Boyd, the Pirate Party’s lead candidate for the Senate in Western Australia, said in an additional statement this week: “The submission made by the Attorney-General’s Department reinforces exactly what the Pirate Party submitted to the Senate Committee. The Department is not on the side of the people, it is on the side of those agencies that naturally want more surveillance powers and more authority to intrude on citizens’ privacy.”

“It is a sad state of affairs when the very bodies responsible for ensuring our law enforcement and intelligence agencies are operating within legal limits and respecting human rights act in the interests of the very agencies they are expected to restrain. They must be independent in this regard and not pick sides. The Attorney-General’s Department should not fight the battles of ASIO, the Australian Federal Police or any other body. It should aim to regulate them and ensure that responsible oversight is provided.”

The Pirate Party’s comments reflect only the latest occasion on which the department and the role of the Attorney-General itself has come under censure from Australia’s digital rights community for being complicit with what many believe is a culture of overreach when it comes to electronic surveillance of Australians.

In September 2012, prominent network engineer and commentator Mark Newton accused the Attorney-General’s Department of using the Attorney-General of the day — whether Labor or Coalition — as a front for its long-running data retention and surveillance plans, which he said dated back to the Howard Government.

According to Newton, who has been a vocal commentator on matters of digital rights in Australia over the past several years and who worked as a network engineer at ISP Internode from 1998 through 2011, then-Labor Attorney-General Nicola Roxon’s participation in the debate over data retention only hid the real players.

“The document is a wish-list of proposals that have been floating around police forces and Attorney-General’s Department bureaucrats for years,” Newton wrote in a submission (PDF) responding to a discussion paper on the reforms published by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security, which was at that stage holding an inquiry into the issue. “Indeed, the Data Retention proposal discussed herein dates back to the Howard Government.”

Newton wrote that every now and then, departmental bureaucrats would float these kind of data retention and surveillance reforms “up like trial balloons”. Usually, he added. “their proposers judge that the winds aren’t blowing in the right direction, and they pop down again until the next opportunity to try them on. It’s almost as if the proposals’ owners float them every time we swear-in a new Attorney General, just to see if he or she is credulous enough to give them a permissive hearing.”

Labor and the Coalition have generally taken a bipartisan approach to electronic surveillance issues raised by or associated with the Attorney-General’s Department and portfolio agencies such as the Australian Federal Police and ASIO.

Appointment contention
The Pirate Party also raised issues regarding a recent appointment at the department, noting the recent appointment of a former ASIO Director-General as the Department’s Chief of Staff under new Attorney-General George Brandis.

“The Attorney-General has argued in Parliament that there is plenty of Parliamentary oversight of intelligence gathering operations in Australia, but he has not been entirely upfront about who is guiding the bureaucrats in his department. It should be no surprise to anyone that a department whose Chief of Staff is a former ASIO Director-General continues to come down on the side of increasing powers for law enforcement and intelligence agencies,” Boyd said in the Pirate Party’s statement.

Photo credit: nickstone333 via photopin cc


  1. My 2 cents …

    Serious criminals / terrorists are ahead of the game so the argument becomes ‘what do intelligence agencies hope to gain by having access to this information?’

    Having lived for a couple of years in a communist autocracy I would say this type of information gathering is at the heart of a corrupt system of government. The information is used for intelligence and policing but somehow there is creep and friends and family connections of politicians somehow just happen to be there at the right time to take advantage of circumstances. All the while everybody is saying how systems are in place to ensure the integrity of the system.

    Democracy is not a static thing. It requires an aware and intelligent society to be sustained. Lack of transparency in government is taking us away from that.

    • //Serious criminals / terrorists are ahead of the game so the argument becomes ‘what do intelligence agencies hope to gain by having access to this information?’//

      They gain nothing and they know it. FFS – they aren’t even able to track passenger jets with any degree of competence (you’d think that passenger jets in countries full of nutcase militants, like Malaysia, might be somewhere on their ‘to do’ list after 9/11 no?). Their record at finding actual terrorists via “enhanced surveillance”, as opposed to old fashioned policing, is NIL.

      You misunderstand them in a very big way if you think of it in terms of “gain”. Think of them instead as junkies and surveillance as the ultimate narcotic. They will never be able to get enough – ever. If there is a surveillance camera in every toilet and bedroom, if all the citizenry are microchipped and every computer backdoored, it still won’t be enough. They will be back, again, demanding even more powers with ever more Munchausean fairytale hypotheticals to justify it. There will never be a limit to their demands. And as long as we have governments gullible, terrified and spineless as those we have now, this will never end.

      //Having lived for a couple of years in a communist autocracy I would say this type of information gathering is at the heart of a corrupt system of government.//

      Surveillance, secrecy and censorship. The unholy trinity of criminal government. And all three of these have seen epic rationalisations and justifications by both Labor and Liberal over the last decade. Only filthy governments ashamed of their actions need them. Speaks volumes about who we allow to govern us.

  2. I run my internet through a VPN located in Australia, sometimes I even add a second. I don’t for a second think I would be worth investigating for anything but if they decide to capture all encrypted data, I will be adding to the governments workload.

    We don’t live in George Orwell’s 1984 and I will fight to keep it that way.

  3. [Originally I posted this on Crikey]

    All this creates a chilling effect, where citizens are reluctant to criticise the government.

    It silences whistleblowers, who risk persecution by the AFP if they report government crime or corruption.

    It discourages people from talking to journalists, whose sources can be easily identified. It allows corrupt public servants to keep a tab on whistleblowers or journalists investigating them.

    It discourages citizens from criticising the government; Anonymous speech is the only way for people to criticise powerful figures without exposing themselves for retribution.

    It allows corrupt public servants to engage in commercial espionage advantaging government enterprises and party donors.

    It discourages people from working for the public service; Consider that public servant Michael Banerji was sacked for anonymously criticising government policy. Law firm Herbert Smith Freehills agrees with the government: “Being a public affairs officer for the Department, I think if you want to express your views perhaps you should find another job” Are only people who agree with the major parties are entitled to government jobs?

    The US takes the more enlightened view: “The general legal theory is that the public’s interest in how public dollars are spent and public safety decisions are made is very strong, and public employees are in a very good position to address those public interests.”

    But compare the US position to Australia where the National Gallery threatened employees with 2 years jail if they blew the whistle on mismanagement or whistleblower Allan Kessing was persecuted by the AFP for allegedly reporting Customs corruption the government ignored for 10 years. Senator Xenophon asked: “How many Australians have overdosed on narcotics as a result of corrupt customs officials allowing those drugs to be brought into the country. How many Australians have been injured or killed as a result of weapons being brought into the country as a result of corrupt Customs officials?”

    Supposedly we must give up our privacy for our security. Benjamin Franklin said “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

    What’s so hypocritical here is both the Labor and Liberal parties tolerate crime and corruption by the Australian Public Service:

    Intrusive surveillance is an abuse of power, and was in fact the trigger for the US Revolutionary War:

    Ralph Borsodi nails it: “What we call a government is after all nothing but a group of individuals, who, by a variety of sanctions, have acquired the power to govern their fellows. The sanctions range from the fraud of divine right to that of sheer conquest; from the imbecility of hereditary privilege to the irrationality of counting voters. [Ed: or getting a job in the Australian Public Service!] In most cases the extent to which these sanctions produce capable legislators, judges, and administrators will not bear critical examination. Nominally, government exists and functions for the public. Actually it exists and functions for the benefit of those who have in one of these absurd ways acquired power to govern. It is accepted mainly because of the sheer inertia of great masses of people. Ostensibly, of course, it is accepted because it confers a sufficiency of visible benefits upon society to make the officials who operate it tolerated in spite of the selfish and idiotic exercise of the powers conferred upon them.”

    I’d much prefer the Australian Public Service gets out of our lives, and is cut back to the bone. It’s an inherently criminal enterprise.

    Albert Jay Nock: “The State’s criminality is nothing new and nothing to be wondered at. It began when the first predatory group of men clustered together and formed the State, and it will continue as long as the State exists in the world, because the State is fundamentally an anti-social institution, fundamentally criminal. The idea that the State originated to serve any kind of social purpose is completely unhistorical. It originated in conquest and confiscation—that is to say, in crime. Like all predatory or parasitic institutions, its first instinct is that of self-preservation. All its enterprises are directed first towards preserving its own life, and, second, towards increasing its own power and enlarging the scope of its own activity. For the sake of this it will, and regularly does, commit any crime which circumstances make expedient.”

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