Australia Boosting Spying & Data Collection

New anti-terrorism measures were recently announced by the Australian government, after the alleged involvement of Australian extremist groups and citizens in countries like Syria and Iraq.

data collection

Tony Abbott. Photo: US Embassy

The focus has been on two Sydney men who fought beside terrorists in the two countries. Arrest warrants were issued for Mohamed Elomar and Khaled Sharrouf who posted violent images on social media. According to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), up to 60 Australian nationals may be engaged in a fighting state overseas in similar circumstances.

Attorney-General George Brandis says that that authorities are aware of several individuals who have returned home with an intent to strike on home soil, and under current laws, it is difficult to prove the alleged criminal acts carried out overseas.

“Anyone who thinks there aren’t people in the West, including in Australia, who are committed to this course of action I’m afraid is delusional,” he told ABC News Radio.

“It’s a really insidious threat which often cannot be properly dealt with without the collection of intelligence, I’m afraid that’s the reality of the world in which we live,” Brandis said.

Media agencies also reveal that Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s National Security Committee has agreed to controversial mandatory data retention requirements for ISPs (Internet Service Providers) in Australia. Spy agencies claim these measures are ‘critical’ to fight against terrorism.

Privacy advocates are concerned whether the browsing history of Australian citizens would be affected by the new surveillance laws. The government has made an effort to clarify that the collected and retained data would include IP addresses of the visited websites, as well as durations and times of visitors.

Specifically, the new laws will require Internet and telecommunications companies to keep customer data – metadata – for a period of two years.

While it’s expected that the information about emails, texts and calls of Australian citizens will be included, Mr. Abbot says that website history could also be retained.

“It’s not what you’re doing on the internet, it’s the sites you’re visiting,’’ he recently stated.

“It’s not the content, it’s just where you’ve been, so to speak.”

He also described metadata as not “content of the letter but what’s on the envelope”.

Attorney-General George Brandis said the new laws could also allow collection of electronic signatures of websites, but leave out clicks within a certain website:

“When you visit a website, people browse from one thing to the next (within the same site),’’ Brandis told Sky News.

“That browsing history won’t be retained and there won’t be any capacity to access that.’

Appropriate or overkill?

NSA’s former General Counsel Stu Baker said that users should not have any solace in the fact that their content is not being monitored. He stated:

“Metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life. If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content.”

It can even include information such as medical information, firearm ownership, and other such details according to a study conducted by Stanford. This is still a staggering amount of information.

Despite raising concerns, the proposal revives a discussion paper published in 2012: it requires ISPs to maintain metadata of users for two years. The idea was eventually dropped before the general elections in 2013.

The newly updated data retention laws in the UK, which were hurriedly passed, showed how quick governments can act. So it won’t be a surprise if the new proposal in Australia becomes law as soon as next month.

While these measures only make mandatory what many companies are already doing for marketing and business reasons – and may not grant ASIO more power than it already possess – they have been continuously opposed by privacy advocates.

The concerns also claim that the Australian government is trying to manipulate allegations of citizen’s involvement in terrorist activities abroad, to justify a more intrusive regime domestically. It has been criticized an inappropriate move that the Australian public should oppose.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said that the national security laws should updated for the modern age.

“But we also have concerns that when you store so much information about so many Australians that this needs to be done very carefully and in a considered way … so there is no risk that ordinary Australians are being treated as if they are criminals,’’ he stated.

George Brandis also confirmed he wanted the mandatory data retention policy with some appropriate safeguards for citizen’s privacy and protection of telecommunication companies. He also labelled the threat to national security as the most serious in the last few decades.