More than 4000 websites around the world will either blacken their home pages or display a banner next week as a protest against extreme government surveillance. The online protest will take place on 11 February.
Australian organisations that will participate in the global protest include Electronic Frontiers Australia, the Australian Privacy Foundation and the Greens.
“What we have got to do is get this back under control and stop treating national security as though it were something sacrosanct,” said the Australian Privacy Foundation's Roger Clarke.
Clarke said nations, such as the members of the 'Five Eyes' alliance (Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and New Zealand), have been helping each other's intelligence agencies circumvent parliamentary constraints on their powers. “This is personal data laundering; these country’s agencies have been helping one another out,” Clarke said.
Greens Senator Scott Ludlam said that the Australian government has been trying its hardest to “keep a lid” on the issue.
“The debate in the United States is much more progressed and much more interesting than what’s occurring here in Australia,” he said.
“The government has done everything that it can to keep a lid on it and close the conversation down, and so that has made it difficult for views to be shared. But governments can change, people’s political views change and I think it’s still sinking in here in Australia.”
Last year Ludlam introduced a ‘Get A Warrant’ bill in an effort to restrict law enforcement agencies to access citizen's private data only with a warrant. He also successfully sought Labor’s support for a Senate inquiry into the revision of the Telecommunication (Interception and Access) Act in December 2013.
"There were 300,000 requests [in the 2012-13 financial year] – not just from the Federal Police but from everybody down to the RSPCA and to local councils. I find it very difficult to imagine how there won’t be law proposals that would close that massive loophole,” Ludlam said.
“Getting this inquiry on its feet, in a way, is an inquiry into that warrantless tapping regime, so I’m going to wait until the drafting comes back from parliamentary counsel," the Senator said.
“I think it probably makes sense not to introduce the bill while this inquiry is afoot, and take feedback on exactly those sorts of processes and proposals from various witnesses.
"We have the Federal Police and the Attorney-General’s department saying it would be the end of law enforcement as we know it and if this bill passes terrorists will win," Ludlam said.
However, he said to his surprise he has received some constructive feedback on the bill from the Attorney-General’s department.
So far there has been one submission to the TIA inquiry made public.
The submission, from the Australian Law Reform Commission, highlights recommendations from the organisation's review into the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act including that law enforcement agencies destroy data gathered from an interception when it is no longer needed and destroy non-material content intercepted under a B-Party warrant, and that ASIO and other law enforcement agencies destroy irrelevant material in a timely manner.
Other recommendations include enhanced reporting requirements for stored communication warrants, that the Attorney-General’s department publish guidance relating to the definition of 'telecommunications data' and when organisations should voluntary disclose data to law enforcement agencies, and enhanced Ombudsman oversight powers.
Clarke said there needs to be more oversight of surveillance programs. “There’s a very big difference between terrorism as it is practised by very small numbers of people involving actual acts of violence against other people, and the sorts of things getting caught up in dragnets that the US, Canada and the other Five Eyes have been doing,” he said.
“[Security agencies] examine things and gather information to find crooks, but we have got to have controls on them as well so that when they are tempted to go silly or bad… There’s got to be a check in the system, and that check is judicial officers. Warrants must be issued by judicial offers – that’s absolutely fundamental.”
He criticised the Attorney-General for “singing directly from the song sheet that’s written for him by the spooks”.
“Every Attorney General that ever moves into that office is immediately under the thumb of the extremely powerful national security and intelligence agencies… They don’t operate as agents for the Australian public; they operate as agencies for the security agencies.
Parliamentary committees need to say "enough is enough", Clarke said.
“We have to pass new laws; we have to demand new transparency that we haven’t achieved before. And if the Attorney-General won’t be game, then we will introduce bills and go straight over the top of his head.”
Follow Rebecca Merrett on Twitter: @Rebecca_Merrett