In what has been slammed as “a licence for witch hunts”, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard this morning approved proposed new laws that would give employers powers to snoop on workers’ emails.

Ms Gillard told reporters this morning that the proposed laws are not designed to invade privacy, but would be “counter-terrorism measures” necessary for protecting “our critical infrastructure… our technology is a big infrastructure issue these days… so we want to make sure they are safe from a terrorist attack.”

This move follows the release of a cache of security industry research papers which argue that corporate Australia should have greater involvement in national security. Some of the papers come from the federal government’s Research Network for a Secure Australia, whose tagline isn’t (as you might expect) “Protecting Australian Citizens”, but “Protecting Australian Infrastructure”.

But this merging of corporate and national security interests could amount to McCarthyist-style snooping, says Will Anderson from Civil Rights Defence. He told Crikey:

We’re concerned that, yet again, ‘national security’ is being invoked as a pretext to encroach on people’s civil liberties and personal lives. We’ve seen how national security laws have been abused for political purposes and to circumvent scrutiny and proper legal process. So the idea of handing such intrusive powers to unaccountable companies is very worrying.

The push to hand national security to the private sector is intensifying. In the last fortnight, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute issued a paper titled “Advancing Australian Homeland Security: Leveraging the Private Sector”. It argues that, “The danger of international terrorism has presented new business opportunities for the security industry”, and is confident that “concerns over terrorism and stricter security regulations will generate robust demand for services such as investigations, employee screening and close personal protection of executives and families”.

This follows Howard’s regulatory pressure on business to meet greater national security standards (including the Terrorism (Community Protection) Act 2003). These laws have in turn prompted the corporate sector, particularly transport, to demand that governments put their money where their mouths are.

Ms Gillard could not be contacted in time for this story.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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