Federal senators disagreed over the appropriate balance between national security and privacy laws in a debate at CeBIT today.
Senator Scott Ludlam for the Greens said privacy laws have not kept up with expanding surveillance powers since 9/11. However, Shadow Attorney-General George Brandis of the Opposition said privacy concerns have been “inflated”.
Brandis stressed instead a need to raise the public’s awareness about the danger of cyber attacks and increase funding for government agencies charged with defending against those attacks.
Ludlam said Parliament has “rapidly” updated surveillance laws since the 2001 terror attacks on the United States. However, “privacy laws are still stuck in the mid-1990s”, he said.
In particular, Ludlam protested what he said amounted to hundreds of thousands of warrantless requests for metadata about citizens’ phone usage. While this metadata doesn’t include wiretapped conversations, Ludlam said it provides enough information to map the locations of citizens at all times of the day.
“Dozens of government agencies are vacuuming this material up, and there’s really no judicial oversight whatsoever,” he said.
Smartphones “can place you anywhere at any time”, he said. “That is going to be very useful for law enforcement from time to time, but I am very, very concerned about a proposal that says every Australian citizen is treated as a criminal suspect until proven otherwise.”
Shield laws for journalists have no value if “two dozen different agencies can just grab your phone records and find out who you’re talking to”, he added.
In his own remarks, Brandis replied: “Some of those [privacy] concerns are real, but others ... have been inflated.”
Updates to wire-tapping law were limited to telecommunications legislation and still “require the issuing of a warrant”. They can be applied only to suspected criminals and do not take away from privacy protections already in place for Australian citizens, he said.
Brandis stressed that the damage that can be caused by cyber terrorism should not be underestimated. “Attacks upon and the degradation of systems are among the most damaging forms of terrorism.”
A major challenge for policy-makers is “reminding citizens that one of the most damaging kinds of terrorism is not violence directed against people but cyber attacks directed against systems”.
Brandis complained that law enforcement and national security agencies are underfunded when it comes to cyber security.
These agencies “must be adequately resourced by the executive government and given the necessary powers to respond to the new challenges posed by cyber crime and cyber espionage,” he said.
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