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Issue #1651      August 13, 2014

Push for unbridled spy powers

Federal Attorney-General George Brandis made a hash of his interview on Sky News while trying to explain the implications of the retention of “metadata”. The problem wasn’t so much his lack of knowledge about the nature of the information to be stored by phone companies and internet service providers (ISPs) but his extreme caution not to let the cat out the bag. The requirement will lay bare the web browsing history and important details of phone conversations of all Australians to spy agencies for two years. The total reach of this surveillance has sparked widespread opposition and the parliamentary Labor Party must move from its attitude of “concern” to utter rejection.

The legislation will come before the parliament later in the year in another tranche of “security” measures. The government has chosen this moment to press for major new spy powers. Images posted on Twitter of a child, allegedly the son of an Australian man, holding the severed heads of victims of terror group ISIS fighting in Syria have been used to sell the legislation. Lurid scenarios of trained and indoctrinated terrorists returning to Australia to wreak havoc are being concocted to justify stripping the whole community of its rights before the law and to privacy.

Senator Brandis also mentioned the use of mobile phone metadata in apprehending the murderer of ABC employee Jill Meagher. The fact this was possible under current legislation was raised by the Sky news presenter but not acknowledged by the Attorney-General during his train-wreck of an interview. In reality, there are no new developments to warrant such a grab for spy powers. “The terrorist threat in this country has not changed, nevertheless it’s as high as it’s ever been,” PM Tony Abbott said.

The Prime Minister’s office later rushed to the aid of Senator Brandis with an unconvincing interpretation of its own regarding individuals’ web browsing history. The full browsing history of an individual will not be included the metadata to be held by ISPs. Either that or it won’t be available without a warrant.

The measure may struggle to get through the Senate but a disturbing reality already exists. Senior security sources told The Australian Financial Review that about 200 ISPs in the increasingly monopolised industry already keep the sort of data that would interest police and dedicated spy agencies for more than two years. It has been revealed that mobile phone companies (usually providers of internet services themselves) regularly provide mobile phone metadata to authorities without a warrant. Last year there were around 330,000 requests for metadata from phone companies. Some companies offer no administrative obstacle at all to the handing over of masses of sensitive data; others claim a degree of decorum is observed.

It is already time for activists, indeed all Australians, to consider the security of their electronic communications because, while terrorism is given as the excuse, the surveillance doubtless extends to all activity not to the liking of the powers that be. The use of informants in anti-fracking, anti-coal mining and animal rights groups has come to light. Unions are targeted. Claims that the current drive for ASIO and police powers is essentially an anti-terrorism measure should be dismissed. So should suggestions that the scrapping of sections of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) was shelved in order to get support from the Muslim community for the current spy agency power grab. Arguments for the gutting of the RDA simply lacked credibility or decency.

Unfortunately, the parliamentary Labor Party is giving “in principle” approval to a host of other measures due to be decided when federal parliament resumes later this month. There is the reversal of the onus of proof for individuals returning from conflict zones where there is a suspicion they may have taken a belligerent role. This turns Australian legal tradition on its head. The concept of “terrorism” will be expanded from planning or engaging in acts to advocating or encouraging “terrorism” by any means including social media. The threshold for arrest without warrant will be lowered and the period allowed for detention for questioning extended. So will preventative detention orders, stop and search and seizure powers.

The ramping up of police and ASIO powers goes beyond the sweeping measures taken by the Howard government in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks in the US. That legislation, which was said to impose temporarily on the rights of Australians, is due to expire in 2015 and 2016. The Abbott government has said it will retain the National Security Legislation Monitor it was seeking to scrap. It claimed the agency was targeted as a cost cutting initiative. Its retention is a poorly concealed sop to concerns over this latest tilt for greater spying powers over the Australian people.

“When it comes to counter-terrorism, everyone needs to be part of Team Australia,” the PM said recently. What he means is that we should buy into the loss of our own democratic rights. We are also being asked to kick in an additional $630 million to security and police agencies to allow this to happen. No is the answer. No more spy powers.

Next article – Editorial – Israel’s real enemy

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