Despite Australian government's claims, our privacy rights are not insignificant

News & Analysis
Despite Australian government's claims, our privacy rights are not insignificant

Australia’s intelligence agencies have beenconducting mass surveillance for more than half a century, routinely sharing the fruits of such labours with their Five Eyes allies in the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand. Australian spying facilities are staffed by the NSA and the UK’s GCHQ, and Australian intelligence officers are routinely tasked with work by their Five Eyes counterparts.  Australia and its allies have infiltrated every aspect of the modern global communications system. And they have done it all in secret.

Which is why the nation was shocked to learn last week that Australia offered to share bulk amounts of information on its citizens with the Five Eyes. A 2008 memo, part of Edward Snowden’s cache of documents and published by The Guardian, confirms that personal data on Australians’ communications – the emails they send, the websites they visit, the sensitive and intimate details they share online – are being handed over en masse to a secret surveillance alliance tasked with analyzing it to draw out “patterns of life”. The ostensible and vague justification for this integrated information sharing is the generation of foreign intelligence for the purpose of protecting the national interest. But whose interests are being protected, and whose placed under scrutiny?

The very idea that our Australian government is spying on its own citizens and collecting such data is an affront to civil liberties, and antithetical to a central pillar of the Australian social consciousness – that the State must not intrude in the private lives of its citizens. But to think that Government is betraying the trust we place in it, however reluctantly, and passing that data on to the governments of other countries? Such a realisation fundamentally changes the careful balance of power and accountability that keeps our political leaders in check.

That such a betrayal can happen to the complete ignorance of the populace is a reflection of the grave failings of the laws regulating the activities of the intelligence services and the oversight bodies that are supposed to ensure they are accountable. Until these reports came to light, Australians had no way of knowing what its government had agreed to do under the Five Eyes arrangement – the secret documents and memoranda that make up the agreement are hidden from public view. Only a few weeks ago Privacy International requested access to all such records held by the Department of Defence, the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the Prime Minister and Cabinet. We were told that all Australian agencies are exempt from divulging information about the activities of the intelligence services, even when such activities directly undermine the rights of every Australian.

For this very reason, we have lodged a complaint with the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, demanding an investigation of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), the barely-heard of agency responsible for Australia’s participation in global mass surveillance. Transparency and accountability must be brought to our intelligence agencies if the Australian government is going to regain the trust it has lost.

Privacy is a value cherished by Australians, who have long possessed a healthy cynicism of State power and a drive to keep Government in check. These latest leaks prove that the intelligence agencies that answer to political leaders, and purport to protect our security, are way out of line. Without access to the secret agreements that govern the intelligence sharing relationship that undermines our privacy, how can we hold Government to account? And without enforceable human rights laws, how can we be sure that they won’t betray our trust again?

This most recent leak reinforces what Australian human rights advocates have long known – Australians remain more at risk of violations of their human rights than citizens of other Western democracies because of the lack of any legal human rights protections. The language of the leaked 2008 memo illustrates this reality in stark relief, placing side-by-side the attitude of the Canadian government, which viewed bulk data sharing as “too high a risk” due to its own human rights laws.

Australia’s position? The unintentional collection of data on Australians as “not… a significant issue.”

When allowed to operate in secret, the State moves from being endowed with defending fundamental rights to seeing them as insignificant. They must no longer be solely answerable to themselves, and instead operate out of the shadows, before the public eye, to ensure our rights are being protected, not traded away.