Sunday, 2 November 2014

Australian snooping bill

Australia is copying the UK’s worst habits by introducing a snooping bill to its parliament. At a cursory glance it looks similar to our snooping bill here in the UK: law enforcement agencies get access to 2 years of metadata without a warrant.  There’s a lot of dubious justification, as you might expect:

The government says the laws could be used to target illicit downloading of movies or music, and make it easier to identify suspected paedophiles.

The former seems a small gain for such an enormous invasion of privacy. Rather, a very small number of people will benefit at everyone’s expense.  In the latter case, I’m all for preventing children being harmed but it’s by no means clear that blanket surveillance will help.  That phrase “identify suspected paedophiles” is a tricksy one, isn’t it? Does it mean “ascertain the identity of users we already suspect of being paedophiles as we have evidence of their grooming, sharing child porn etc”? Or does it mean “mine the metadata to generate suspicion of paedophilia”?  Because the two are very different.  The latter case is very worrying.

"Access to metadata plays a central role in almost every counter-terrorism, counter-espionage, cyber security, organised crime investigation," Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull told parliament.

Really?  If that’s true, they must already have access to the data they need, using existing procedures (warrants, court orders etc.) Why do they need everyone’s data unless they plan to mine it to generate suspicion?

He said criminal investigations had been hampered by authorities' lack of access to metadata.

I daresay they have.  That doesn’t mean we should necessarily spy on every citizen.  I’m sure criminal investigations have been hampered by authorities’ inability to torture suspects, but that doesn’t mean we should start.

"Illegal downloads, piracy, cyber crimes, cyber security, all these matters - our ability to investigate them is absolutely pinned to our ability to retrieve and use metadata," the commissioner said.

Even supposing that’s true, access to metadata can be achieved in ways other than the blanket retention of everyone’s.

The Australian government is also introducing or has introduced a new law which allows prison sentences for people who blow the whistle on certain “special intelligent operations”.  This is clearly aimed at silencing journalists who might publish secret information that’s in the public interest such as the Snowden leaks.  It’s OK though, because the attorney-general will be able to veto prosecutions against journalists:

"It's a very powerful, practical safeguard for a minister, who is a practising politician, to assume personal responsibility for authorising the prosecution of a journalist,'' he said.

Surely a politician is the last person who should decide who is prosecuted.  I cannot imagine a larger conflict of interest. A story about corruption in the opposition party?  Oh, I don’t think that needs to be prosecuted…

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