“Rational debate” needed around surveillance


blog In the wake of the news yesterday that the Coalition and Labor are supporting a raft of new electronic surveillance measures, the Pirate Party of Australia has called for a rational debate to be held over the issue, in the context of widespread opposition to increased surveillance by the Australian public. The party’s full media release:

“Pirate Party Australia is alarmed over reports that the Federal Cabinet has approved sweeping new surveillance powers for ASIO (here and here). The Cabinet cited concerns that Australians in Syria are being radicalised by the conflict raging in that country, putting Australia at risk, but the proportionality of the response is not backed up by rigorous evidence. Pirate Party Australia is concerned that the new powers will put ordinary Australians under even greater surveillance without providing any greater ability to monitor actual threats.

Pirate Party Australia President Simon Frew commented: “While we have yet to see the new surveillance powers being proposed for Australian intelligence agencies, the previous government’s National Security Inquiry conducted in late 2012 provides us with a good indication of what they want. Of most concern is the push for more intrusive surveillance with insufficient oversight. Australians are sick and tired of the continual ramping up of surveillance we are being subjected to. Some surveillance is justified but it needs to be targeted and warrants must be obtained.”

A poll by Essential Research in February (PDF) indicated 80% of Australians oppose warrantless surveillance. With over 300,000 instances of warrantless access to stored communications reported in the year 2012/2013 it is clear that law enforcement agencies need to be subjected to tighter controls and greater oversight.

Mr Frew continued: “Privacy is vital for a free society. We need the space to form ideas, experiment and ask questions away from prying eyes. Widespread surveillance creates a situation where people self-censor and withhold valid opinions, fearing the repercussions. The continual assault on the right to privacy is damaging to democracy and needs to be reversed.”

It has been indicated that the most controversial proposal of the National Security Inquiry — the mandatory retention of data for two years — will be dealt with in a separate legislative proposal. The Court of Justice of the European Union held the EU’s “Data Retention Directive” to be invalid in April this year (PDF) on the grounds that it “interferes in a particularly serious manner with the fundamental rights to respect for private life and to the protection of personal data.”

Mr Frew concluded: “The issues of security, surveillance and privacy are not being dealt with in a reasoned, consultative fashion in Australia. We cannot let fear drive the loss of our liberties. There is a need to enforce the law and keep Australians safe, but that should not mean giving up essential freedoms. There is no guarantee that these laws will be repealed if and when the perceived threat is eliminated, and undoubtedly our law enforcement and intelligence agencies will, with the support of the Attorney-General’s Department, continue to push for even more powers in the future.”