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Issue #1599      June 26, 2013

PRISM – heed the privacy warnings

The scandal surrounding the US National Security Agency’s industrial-scale collection of Internet data had the spy agencies and Internet monopolies tripping over themselves to engage in damage control. An NSA employee, 29-year-old Edward Snowden, had fled to Hong Kong for his own safety after revealing the extent of the NSA’s PRISM program to the UK Guardian and The Washington Post. Data given voluntarily by users of services like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, AOL, Yahoo and others has been made freely available to the NSA for several years. Clearly, masses of Internet users across the globe, including those in Australia, are being caught up in the workings of Section 702 of the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

The White House was choosing its words carefully. The program does not intentionally “target” individual US citizens. If everybody’s telephone and Internet data is being collected and stored for later reference on vast data farms like the one at Bluffdale in Utah then, very strictly speaking, individuals aren’t being targeted by programs like PRISM. Presumably, the rights and protests of citizens in other countries are of no concern to the US administration.

“Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers,” Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said. “We only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers,” Microsoft chimed in. “If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data, we don’t participate in it.”

“We have never heard of PRISM,” said Steve Dowling from Apple. “We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order.”

Several companies were reported to be seeking exemption from restrictions imposed by FISA so as to give clearer details of the huge numbers of police and spy agency requests they receive and with which they are bound to comply. The “outrage” and “concern” for the privacy of users is unconvincing. The only company with a record of genuine resistance to the embrace of the NSA appears to be Twitter. It fought requests from US government authorities for information on users associated with WikiLeaks and the Occupy movement though ultimately it, too, is vulnerable to the vast body of post 9/11 legislation.

What about Australia?

So what about Australia, how exposed to this massive invasion of privacy are people living here? Very, is the short answer. The path travelled by Internet data is relatively random but, given the dominance of companies like the ones mentioned above and the ownership of satellites, there is a strong chance it will pass through the US. Australia is party to the “five eyes” agreement with the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand to share signals intelligence. Reports on PRISM confirm that the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has gathered information on British citizens via the NSA program. Why would Australia be any different?

A spokeswoman for Australian Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus was very tight-lipped. It was the “... long-standing practice of successive governments not to comment on national security and intelligence capabilities.” We do know, via a statement to a Senate estimates hearing by Australian Federal Police Deputy Commissioner Michael Phelan, that the AFP made 43,362 requests for “metadata” from phone and Internet records last financial year. “Metadata” indicates who contacted whom from what location, at what time and for how long. It appears authorities are just as interested in patterns of contact as they are in the content of communications.

No doubt many of these requests are about missing persons, drug dealing, fraud and other legitimate police matters, but the potential for Australian authorities to share the “wealth” of data collected on Australian political activists by the NSA should sound warnings bells. “If you have nothing to hide, there is no reason to worry,” is the usual official response to such concerns. But the secret collection of data on activists is disturbing and will pose greater dangers in future as capitalism drifts deeper into crisis and governments respond to social unrest with even more repression of dissent.

Progressive Australians should review their Internet habits. Sensitive matters relating to the struggle against the increasingly anti-worker, pro-war and environmentally destructive course the country is set on should not be gifted to the NSA and, eventually, to Australia’s spy agencies via email and social media. Some used to consider it paranoid to believe Internet monopolies had an open door policy towards US spy networks. We now know too much about its operation to carry on as before. Thank you Edward Snowden.   

Next article – NTEU to spend $1 million on election campaign to defend higher education

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