Saturday, 1 December 2012

Surveillance state Australia?

There's that clicking sound on the line again as you're talking on the phone. It kicks in a few seconds after you make the connection and there are other audible clicks that occur during the phone call. When did it start happening? You can't remember, but it has been going on for months. It could be something quite innocent, of course, but the fact remains that there are thousands of telephone intercept warrants issued to police under federal law in Australia each year. According to the Age there were 3755 telephone intercepts authorised in 2011-12. In total, NSW police have 103,824 telephone intercepts operating now. There are tens of thousands more being managed by police in other states.

A judicial warrant is required to open an intercept but the figures show that once it's on, it stays on. Only nine applications were refused or withdrawn nationally in 2011-12. All renewal applications from police were approved in the same period of time.

Beyond telephone intercepts there are other items of data that you generate all the time and which can be monitored without invoking a judicial warrant, but merely on the command of "senior police or officials". Officials?
The data available to government agencies under federal law includes phone and internet account information, outwards and inwards call details, phone and internet access location data, and details of Internet Protocol addresses visited (though not the actual content of communications).
Such data was accessed in Australia over 300,000 times in 2011-12, meaning that "agencies obtained private data from telecommunications and internet service providers 5800 times every week". Statistics for ASIO are security classified and are not published; presumably that goes for telephone intercepts as well.

The Greens have complained about the scope of this huge data haul - Scott Ludlam is quoted expressing his reservations in the story - but Labor is now pressing to further expand the surveillance powers available to agencies of government including "a minimum two-year data retention standard for phone and internet providers". Agencies who access such data can even include local councils and Australia Post.

So you don't know who's monitoring your internet and phone call data. You don't know if a telephone intercept has been established for your phone. But given the scale of the data access activity that the Age story exposes, it's likely that at some point your communications will be monitored by some agency or other. It could be ASIO, it could be the police, it could be the tax office. Once they start looking at you it's likely that they will continue to look at you. So what kind of country are we living in that government needs to so closely surveil the activities of its citizens?

Further, what kind of reciprocal oversight opportunities do Australians have? Occasionally there's a story in the media like the one linked to in this blog post. But all this does for us is show us something about the scope of data access operations. Stories like this never reveal any details about the kinds of data that is accessed by government authorities nor the reasons why such data is accessed. So how are we to judge whether such data access is warranted? We cannot. It all comes down to trust. We must trust that the government will only request data access when there is a pressing reason to do so. And we must trust that data monitoring will cease once suspicion has abated.

Do you trust the government?

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