Don’t think the efforts of the national security cabal to impose mass surveillance on Australians will end with the passage last night of the Coalition-Labor data retention scheme. They’ll be back, pushing for more powers to spy on citizens, and probably sooner than we think.

That’s what the history of security agency powers and resources over the last decade shows: extending their powers is a continuous process, in which last year’s assurance that just a small tweak to existing laws to ensure agencies can do their job properly becomes next year’s urgent need for expansions to meet dramatic new threat. The threat changes continually — it used to be the Soviets and the Chinese, then it was al-Qaeda’s threat of mass casualty events, then it was the threat of a cyber 9/11, now it’s “lone wolf” “self-radicalised” extremists capable only of killing a random stranger.

But the very logic that has driven agencies to embrace data retention means that they cannot stop at the bill passed yesterday by a combination of an ignorant, craven opposition and politically desperate government. Data retention was needed, security agencies said, because they were “going dark” on their ability to obtain digital communications data. And Edward Snowden was partly to blame, according to the Attorney-Generals’ Department, which told the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security “telecommunications data is becoming increasingly important to Australia’s law-enforcement and national security agencies as they lose reliable access to the content of communications. This threat has increased significantly since the Snowden disclosures.”

This is a reference to how the “Snowden disclosures” have driven a spike in the use of tools to protect online privacy. But as the data retention debate has unfolded in Australia, Australians’ use of such protections has increased still further. Beyond the big spike in the use of Tor in 2013, for example, use of the routing service has continued to increase. Since July 2014, when the government said it was “actively considering” mass surveillance, use of Tor in Australia has increased from around 24,000 users to nearly 30,000 users. And that compares to around 10,000 users just before the first Snowden disclosures in June 2013.

And offshore VPN use has also increased. US-based Private Internet Access told Crikey “we’re most definitely noticing a spike in traffic coming from Australia, growing an already-strong base of subscribers from Australia. This growth is something that is noticeable not only over the traffic we received in prior years, but even when doing a month-to-month comparison over the last several months from 2014 to this year.” Sunday Yokubaitis, the president of Golden Frog, which provides VyprVPN, told Crikey that after the company launched several Australian servers in 2013 “we experienced significant growth in VyprVPN connections from Australian users. But this growth has exploded since mid-2014 when Australian data retention laws first started to be discussed. Since mid-2014 VyprVPN connections from our Australian users have doubled, and we expect this trend to continue.”

And this growth is definitely driven by concerns about mass surveillance. Yokubaitis noted “the majority of these connections by Australiian users are to our Australian server locations in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. This tells us that a strong majority of VyprVPN customers in Australia are using VyprVPN to protect their online privacy, rather than to get a USA IP address so they can access geo-restricted services, such as Netflix.”

As some of us predicted, the latest push for mass surveillance has merely exacerbated the very problem mass surveillance advocates claim to want to address. Data retention will continue to be a boon for offshore VPN companies while Australian IT and communications companies are lumbered with a grotesquely expensive scheme and the stigma of being forced to spy on their customers.

This isn’t necessarily a problem for security agencies: bizarrely, Malcolm Turnbull, notionally the minister co-responsible for this bill, has used the debate to explain to tell journalists that they should evade its effects. But more to the point, agencies will simply use the fact that the very measures they proposed have worsened the problem they originally complained about to demand yet more powers, in the same way that the reaction to the “Snowden disclosures” became justification for data retention.

In Parliament, Labor abandoned its core responsibility to protect the rights of Australians to the Greens, David Leyonhjelm, Nick Xenophon and the other crossbench senators who voted against the data retention bill yesterday. Having been failed by the major parties, Australians are taking their own steps to protect themselves from mass surveillance. And that will become the basis for the next round of ever-more draconian measures.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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