There’s a peculiar contrast on display in the Australian media today, to do with national security and the internet.

Unlike other countries, and especially the United States, where there’s not merely been an extensive debate but a presidential panel review and legislative changes to curb the powers of spy agencies, the Snowden revelations have occasioned no debate in Australia. That Australia is complicit in a planetary-scale, multi-system mechanism of mass surveillance; that our own agencies have engaged in electronic surveillance of countries that are ostensibly our allies and close partners; that we have used electronic surveillance that is claimed to be used to defeat terrorism and our potential military opponents for economic advantage and to help US corporations: all these facts have been met with a conspiracy of silence from the major political parties here. Worse, the media has allowed both sides to get away with using national security as an excuse not to debate whether what Australia is engaged in is legal, moral or serves its national interests.

Further, most of the Australian media, with the honourable exception of the ABC, have stood silent while the former Australian Secret Intelligence Service officer who revealed the manifestly illegal bugging of the East Timorese cabinet, and his lawyer, have been harassed and threatened with jail by the government.

But when the government wants to talk about cybersecurity on its terms, the media is happy to fall into line. Thus, today, across most media outlets, you’ll find uncritical discussion of the government’s new cybersecurity strategy, even praise for what is portrayed as a muscular willingness to “hit back” at cyber attacks. The narrative is that Australia is beefing up its defences against our online enemies — terrorists, China, organised crime, etc, etc — and that business should do so as well and that citizens should be alert. Moreover, a statement of what we have always known — that Australia engages in cyber attacks of its own — is somehow seen as fresh and new. There’ll even be, amusingly, “a new minister assisting the prime minister on cyber security”.

Would that we’d get one-tenth of the coverage of revelations about Australia’s role as the south-east Asian and Pacific arm of the Five Eyes’ global mass surveillance system.

So here’s the missing context to today’s torrent of reportage and comment on cybersecurity and defending ourselves against the “malicious actors” of the world. We are the malicious actors. We are the bad guys. We are the biggest threat to online security in the world, through our vassal state role in the Five Eyes’ global surveillance system. And we are the ones causing damage.

What damage?

The damage to our cybersecurity that comes from degrading encryption, which has been on the agenda of the National Security Agency for decades and which has resulted in demonstrable degradation of corporate and government security.

The damage to freedom of speech and a free press via the chilling effect of surveillance, magnified by mass surveillance schemes like our own data retention system. This chilling effect has been acknowledged by a UK government report.

The lasting damage to relations between allies of Five Eyes’ surveillance of political leaders — not merely of close US allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and successive French presidents, but our own of former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The commercial damage done to the business models of large internet companies who have been — either willingly or unwillingly — forced to collaborate with Five Eyes’ global surveillance — and, ironically, the ensuing damage to the business models of surveillance agencies as those companies now move to embrace end-to-end encryption.

The damage done to security and law enforcement as enforcement and intelligence agencies devote more resources to chasing false positives in a vast sea of mass surveillance data, while targeted surveillance of potential terrorists already identified and operating in plain sight is ignored.

And the more nebulous, but very real, damage to society as we accept that our privacy has been profoundly and perhaps permanently made subject to the whim of unaccountable bureaucrats — and of anyone who can break into the frequently insecure storage system the bureaucrats use.

And let’s not forget the damage to taxpayers as countries like Australia pour more money into the cyber arm of the military industrial complex — cybersecurity is now mostly an adjunct of the US defence industry, which hypes the threat of “digital Pearl Harbors” and “cyber 9/11s” to encourage governments to maintain and increase funding in the area.

And our cyber crimes aren’t to protect us from terrorism or crime or China, they’re almost entirely about economic espionage. That’s why the political leaders of our allies are spied on, that’s why large foreign firms that are our economic competitors are spied on.

Sadly, Australia’s media are content to play along with the lie of Australia being one of the good guys of the internet, gamely protecting itself against the “malicious actors” of the digital world. But the world, and ordinary citizens, need protecting from us.

Peter Fray

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