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The rise of global surveillance anxiety


Security camera 'spies' on binary codeAttorney-General Mark Dreyfus has mostly got headlines as one of the Gillard Government's better-performing ministers. Last week, however, he managed to trigger deep anxieties about the Government's attitude to the relationship between citizens, the law and those who enforce it.

Asked about the startling revelation at a Senate estimates hearing that federal police obtain phone and internet records without a warrant nearly 1000 times a week, Dreyfus was curtly dismissive. If warrants had to be sought before police could acquire the information, he said, 'law enforcement would grind to a halt'.

Whaaaat? Is the government's chief law officer really saying that judicial warrants, which protect privacy by authorising the interception of telecommunications only on suspicion of criminal conduct, are an obstacle to effective policing?

No, Dreyfus didn't quite say that. But his answer conveyed no recognition of the alarm that many people, across the political spectrum, will feel at knowing how easily police and other government agencies can obtain what they had presumed would be private information.

Those feelings of alarm may diminish when it is understood that the information police garner so easily is not the content of telecommunications but so-called 'metadata' — phone numbers, and the date, time and duration of calls. Warrants are not required to obtain metadata, which is why, on the Senate estimates testimony of Australian Federal Police deputy commissioner Michael Phelan, the AFP made 43,362 requests for metadata in the last financial year and 50,841 in 2010–11.

The unease, however, will not entirely disappear. It is not unreasonable for people to expect that whom they call, as much as what might be said during a call, is their own business and that police shouldn't have automatic access to their records.

The Greens agree, and their communications spokesman Scott Ludlum is sponsoring a bill that would impose a warrant regime for metadata requests as well as for direct intercepts of phone and email traffic. But the major parties have remained silent on the issue, apart from Dreyfus' untested claim that routine policing now depends upon being able to keep track of who is calling whom.

Unease at the AFP's admissions about metadata requests coincided with a greater, global anxiety about the activities of the US National Security Agency (NSA). In a series of stories published in The Guardian, Edward Snowden, a former employee of a NSA consultancy company who is now in hiding in Hong Kong, described the NSA's PRISM project, through which it accumulates logs of emails, chat-room exchanges and other data from internet companies such Google, Facebook and Apple.

Snowden's revelations were astounding not only because of the extent of the NSA's surveillance — there has been nothing comparable in human history — but because of its routine nature. Like the AFP's metadata requests, the PRISM program is not constrained by a requirement that grounds for suspecting criminal conduct must be demonstrated to a judicial officer before surveillance takes place. It is just what the NSA does.

The NSA story, and Snowden's role as whistleblower, have inevitably invited comparison with the saga of Wikileaks, its beleaguered founder Julian Assange, and Bradley Manning, who is on trial for having supplied Wikileaks with US diplomatic cables. Battle lines have been drawn as they were over Wikileaks, with familiar faces either hailing Snowden, Assange and Manning as heroes resisting the rise of Big Brother or condemning them as egomaniacal security threats.

So the debate rages. But, whatever parallels there might be between what Snowden has done and what Manning did, there is no counterpart to Wikileaks in the NSA affair.

We know about PRISM because a newspaper broke the story. More importantly, the implications of the NSA story are far more grave than anything revealed in the diplomatic cables. For all the rage that publication of the cables has provoked in some quarters, and all the glee it has aroused in others, they have mostly just shown diplomats and politicians saying and behaving as they might be expected to do when not in the public view.

The NSA story, however, has lifted the veil on the growth of surveillance practices so entrenched that even the governments that authorised them in the first place may not be fully aware of just how extensive the surveillance is, or fully able to control the agencies that conduct it.

The Obama administration's defence of the NSA's activities has been as lame as Mark Dreyfus's defence of the AFP's reliance on access to telecommunications metadata. In each case, it has amounted to an insinuation: that we might not feel safe without the surveillance.

But the greater worry, surely, is whether we can really feel safe with it.

Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor. 

'Surveillance' image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott



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Existing comments

Privacy it the biggest illusion of today. Whenever we shop, drive a car, use the internet or whenever we make a financial transaction of any kind, we are exposed privacy erosion. For most people this is not an issue, as it helps our shops to stock good we like and it helps the traffic to flow. It also helps to get crooks off our street and it helps cutting done on tax evasion and welfare fraud. We may have more personal privacy then any time in history, as much of our personal details are now protected by strong law from unwanted invasion. The current civil war between fanatics across the world has given rise to terrorism, drug smuggling, people smuggling and money laundering. The current laws are about right to provide us with good personal privacy but at the same time giving our police sufficient resources to clamp down on parasites and crooks within our society. In a perfect world, we would have more privacy and less crime, but we are still waiting for such a society to emerge.

Beat Odermatt | 21 June 2013  

Authority can look at anything I write , say or do , I have nothing to hide . Let's give authority whatever it needs to catch the cheats . A good start would be a national identification number .

NameJohn crew | 21 June 2013  

In the past, everyone was a member of a community in which they and what they did were well known. With the growth of the anonymous nature of big city life, many of the restaints on anti-social behaviour have been lost. Some kind of mechanisms are needed to guard against excessive anti-social behaviour. Neighbourhood Watch is one acceptable step, but it cannot be expected to prevent the horrific harm that home-grown terrorism inflicts on people. There must be checks and balances, but excessive concern about "privacy" should not stand in the way of security from organised crime and terrorism.

Robert Liddy | 21 June 2013  

If seems to me that if they are going to spy on us all, then we want the same - transparent government. Fair is fair. And more Julian Assanges!

Clement Clarke | 21 June 2013  

lame /lam/ Adjective (of a person or animal) Unable to walk normally because of an injury or illness affecting the leg or foot: "his horse went lame". http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BmdovYztH8&feature=player_embedded#at=124

Game Theory | 23 June 2013  

I really think that the Obama comment is the most pertinent. There are some really bad people out there, and I want the good-guys to be monitoring them as much as possible, and who they talk to. As long as a court order is needed to actually listen in. Subject very well developed in "The Wire"...worth watching. But let's not be hysterical.

Eugene | 24 June 2013  

I would be more worried if the AFP stopped acting on some of the data obtained.

Clem Schaper | 25 June 2013  

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