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Apr 3, 2014

Attorney-General’s moves fast on new telco security arrangements

The Attorney-General's Department is pursuing a new security framework to bring telecommunications companies and ISPs under tighter government control. But it appears to be treading softly on data retention.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

The Attorney-General’s Department has rushed to implement a set of wide-ranging reforms and extensions to telecommunications and IT interception powers for intelligence and law enforcement agencies, new documents reveal.

Within weeks of George Brandis being appointed Attorney-General in September, his department began a concerted push to obtain his approval for the development of a package of reforms along the lines proposed by then-attorney-general Nicola Roxon in 2012, starting with an industry consultation process. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Crikey (large PDF) — heavily redacted or exempted — show the department eager to use the report of Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security as a “road map” to implement over 40 reforms.

The JCIS report, under the chairmanship of Labor backbencher Anthony Byrne, assessed the Roxon reforms from May 2012 to June last year in a process that directed much of its focus to the controversial issue of data retention. Brandis himself was a member of the committee and said to be significantly less enthusiastic about data retention than colleagues like Philip Ruddock. Eventually the committee declined to make a recommendation on a data retention scheme, saying it was a matter for government, but suggested if a scheme was under consideration it return to the committee as draft legislation.

The department — consistent with its public submissions elsewhere — appears to be treading softly on the issue, repeatedly noting the committee’s position on data retention in its internal briefs and briefing for Brandis. For internal purposes, the department’s formal “line” on the subject was that it would “carefully consider the guidance of the committee”.

But JCIS is now a very different body from the one of the previous Parliament. Byrne, who guided the committee to a unanimous position in that report amid intense scrutiny from online groups, is now deputy chair to former diplomat Dan Tehan; Andrew Wilkie is no longer a member while several backbenchers with military backgrounds have joined. Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek also joined the committee, despite the perception that JCIS works best when it is free of the executive of both government and opposition. It was Plibersek who last weekend suggested she was relaxed about data retention, apparently falling into line with briefings from intelligence agencies that data retention was crucial to security. Intelligence and police agencies insist that mandatory retention of phone and internet records is needed to stop terrorism and solve crime.

The Roxon proposals were a long wishlist of reforms sought by intelligence agencies, including extending surveillance powers to social media companies and giving ASIO the power to break into and install malware on computers in order to get closer to surveillance targets. However, the reform that AGD is pursuing as a priority relates to a new “security framework” as part of a Telecommunications Sector Security Reform process …

The TSSR framework would impose on telecommunications companies, ISPs and, perhaps, other service providers much greater obligations to protect their networks and give the government a much greater range of powers to enforce industry information sharing and compliance compared to current arrangements, which in effect amount to a demand to switch off entire services:

“The proposed security framework seeks to place a universal obligation on all C/CSPs [carriage and carriage service providers] to maintain and demonstrate supervision and effective control of networks and facilities, and information in their control. While the obligation itself provides for an even-playing field, Government will engage more intensively with some C/CSPs based on assessment of threat and risk, taking into account market, customers, and other elements of criticality to the national interest.”

The irony of the framework, of course, is that it is likely Australian companies don’t have effective control of their information given what we know of the mass surveillance techniques of the National Security Agency, Britain’s GCHQ and our own Australian Signals Directorate, which was consulted as part of the preparation of AGD’s briefings.

The department first approached Brandis at the end of October about the framework. While the recommendations are redacted they appear to concern beginning consultations with industry, which would be conducted in secret and protected as “commercial in confidence”. The department was also developing a regulatory impact statement — one of the issues that had bedevilled their data retention efforts under the Rudd government — and guidelines for the framework. The department then returned to Brandis twice more, in November and December, in briefings either nearly or fully redacted; by that stage the matter was being prepared for cabinet.

Other reforms will presumably be pursued, but for the moment the priority is to bring Australian telcos and ISPs more tightly under government direction.

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4 thoughts on “Attorney-General’s moves fast on new telco security arrangements

  1. paddy

    Given Tanya Plibersek’s supposedly “progressive” leanings, I can’t recall a dumber move than her suggestion she was relaxed about data retention.
    Have definitely got fingers & toes crossed, that Scott Ludlam gets back into the Senate this weekend.
    He appears to be one of the few parliamentarians who actually *gets it*, when it comes to data retention.

  2. bluepoppy

    When will the AG give the green light to mass collection of snail mail.

  3. AR

    BlueP – ironically, at the moment snail mail is more secure from the spooks than the digi-stuff but it was not always so. When I joined the PMG in 1964 there were three rooms in the sub-sub basement of Martin Place GPO wherein they resided, drunks and kiddie fiddlers all, who get their jollies opening & reading the mail of subversives.
    The point about the State is that it never gives up in its intrinsic impulse to control everything(see Kafka – it’s not so much evil as the nature of the beast), even the pointless & irrelevant. No matter how often the demand for total control is rebuffed, the inadequates & resentful (to be generous)who staff it just keep on keepin’ on until they succeed.

  4. Brendan Jones

    Public surveillance and data retention creates a chilling effect on free speech, where citizens are reluctant to criticise the government.

    It discourages citizens from criticising the government; Anonymous speech is the only way for people to criticise powerful figures without exposing themselves to retribution.

    It discourages citizens who might one day want to work in the public service from expressing political opinions.

    It discourages people from working for the public service, because they cannot safely express political opinions, even anonymously.

    The US takes a more enlightened view: “The general legal theory is that the public’s interest in how public dollars are spent and public safety decisions are made is very strong, and public employees are in a very good position to address those public interests.” Not so Australia where a public servant reporting government mismanagement or corruption faces 2 years jail.

    It silences whistleblowers, who risk persecution by the AFP if they report government crime or corruption which the AFP themselves routinely ignore. The “But I’ve got nothing to hide” crowd should consider that without anonymity, nurses and doctors cannot safely report hospital malpractice.

    It allows corrupt public officials to engage in commercial espionage, advantaging government enterprises and party donors. It discourages people from talking to journalists, whose sources can be easily identified. It allows corrupt public officials to keep a tab on whistleblowers or journalists investigating them.

    Clearly limiting the public’s ability to criticise the Australian government far from increasing public safety, is actually harming it. Benjamin Franklin said “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

    ASIO cannot be trusted, and neither can the Attorney-General’s Department whose stated mission is to uphold the rule of law, yet they consistently fail to act while public officials flagrantly break civil and criminal law. The Attorney-General’s Department is systemically corrupt.

    What’s so hypocritical here is both the Labor and Liberal parties tolerate crime and corruption in the Australian Public Service. They claim to care about national security, but their spying and incursions on Indonesia are themselves inflammatory *and* the NSA’s spying US has not stopped a single terrorist attack.

    Yet as Plibersek calls for *more* surveillance, both parties remain silent on the many cases where surveillance has been abused. And using ASIO to spy for Woodside breached Section 142.2 of the Criminal Code , yet the IGIS failed to investigate and neither government nor opposition has pursued the matter.

    142.2 Abuse of public office
    (1) A Commonwealth public official is guilty of an offence if:
    (a) the official
    (i) exercises any influence that the official has in the official’s capacity as a Commonwealth public official; or
    (ii) engages in any conduct in the exercise of the official’s duties as a Commonwealth public official; or
    (iii) uses any information that the official has obtained in the official’s capacity as a Commonwealth public official; and
    (b) the official does so with the intention of:
    (i) dishonestly obtaining a benefit for himself or herself or for another person; or
    (ii) dishonestly causing a detriment to another person.

    Penalty: Imprisonment for 5 years.

    @AR > The point about the State is that it never gives up in its intrinsic impulse to control everything

    So true! Nock: Like all predatory or parasitic institutions, its first instinct is that of self-preservation. All its enterprises are directed first towards preserving its own life, and, second, towards increasing its own power and enlarging the scope of its own activity.” “The idea that the State originated to serve any kind of social purpose is completely unhistorical.”

    Yesterday we saw RBA governor Glenn Stevens and Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson calling for more taxes. How about less taxes, and we cut the APS to the bone instead?