Last week, to no coverage outside of the IT press, the Greens announced their commitment to a Digital Rights Commissioner as part of the Australian Human Rights Commission, to “advocate for the online safety, accessibility, privacy and security of all Australians”.
The commissioner proposed by the Greens would play the kind of role that many of us had hoped Tim Wilson would play when appointed to the Human Rights Commission — a cyber-literate advocate for privacy and online freedom prepared to hold to account efforts by politicians to impose a command-and-control agenda on the internet, an agenda driven by the War on Terror, censorship advocates and the copyright industry. Wilson, however, proved a bitter disappointment, falling into line on the joint Coalition-Labor imposition of mass surveillance on Australians and offering equally negligible opposition to the Coalition’s internet censorship schemes which now enable the copyright cartel to force ISPs to censor websites.
Wilson has since been preselected for a safe Liberal seat. Say no more.
The last three years have been tumultuous in terms of mass surveillance and digital rights. The first revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden were published on June 5, 2013. Since then, we have learnt extensive details of the planet-wide communications interception system run by the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, as well as embarrassing details of Australia’s surveillance of its neighbours, particularly Indonesia, such as attempts to bug the communications of then-Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his family and inner circle, and Australia’s relaying of sensitive intercepted communications between Indonesian trade officials and their US legal advisers to the US government for use by US companies.
We’ve also learnt that the US engaged in systematic surveillance of the leaders of allied powers like Germany and France, as well as companies competing against US firms. We’ve learnt, as the result of a review established by Barack Obama himself in the aftermath of the revelations, that there is no evidence that this vast mass surveillance apparatus has prevented any terror attacks. Indeed, tragically, nearly all of the terror attacks in the US, Europe and Australia over the last three years have been perpetrated by people already known to security agencies, indeed in many cases people who have been closely investigated and then allowed to continue unmonitored. The only lasting benefit of the surveillance apparatus appears to be to the economic interests of the “Five Eyes” countries.
In the US, Snowden was at first demonised as a traitor but, over time, even former participants in the Obama administration’s extensive war on whistleblowers, such as former attorney-general Eric Holder, have acknowledged the benefits that have flowed from his whistleblowing. Significantly, it prompted a widespread debate about mass surveillance and, almost uniquely, a rollback by Congress of laws permitting mass surveillance and the powers of security agencies.
In Australia, however, the reverse has occurred. The Abbott government used the threat of Islamic State in Syria as a pretext to impose a mass surveillance scheme on Australians and dramatically extend the powers of security agencies. And there has been, literally, no discussion by the major parties of the significance of Snowden’s revelations about Australia’s conduct. Only the Greens and Nick Xenophon have tried to publicly debate mass surveillance and the powers and activities of our agencies. And the Australian Federal Police have repeatedly pursued whistleblowers and journalists using their enhanced surveillance powers.
The only positive development over the last three years in any of these areas is that, mainly because of the work of Labor’s Anthony Byrne, the parliamentary committee charged with oversight of such matters, the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, has expanded its powers and remit to provide for greater oversight and accountability of security agencies, though they still fall well short of the basic oversight capacity that, for example, the equivalent US House and Senate committees possess. The Liberals’ Dan Tehan, as committee chair, also deserves credit for this evolution of the role of JCIS. But Tehan was promoted to the ministry when Turnbull became prime minister and, in an inexplicable act of contempt for JCIS, Turnbull replaced him as committee chair with far-right Tasmanian MP Andrew Nikolic, who has explicitly attacked the basic idea of debating national security powers. There is therefore little likelihood of JCIS offering credible oversight of security agencies unless the voters of Bass do the country a favour and remove Nikolic’s noxious presence from Parliament.
Despite three years of tumult about surveillance and security, those issues have been entirely absent from the campaign, perpetuating the conspiracy of silence between the major parties we’ve had since June 2013. The world, and Australia, is a very different place to three years ago: it is now acknowledged by major party politicians that western military interventions in the Middle East encourage terrorism, and it is now much clearer that mass surveillance simply doesn’t stop terror attacks — indeed, might actually enable them by devoting security agency resources to pursuing false leads — and yet Australians are surveiled by their government, and the corporations that the government uses, more than ever.
Overnight, Tony Abbott, who bungled national security like he bungled everything else (witness the ignoring of the Man Haron Monis letter by the Attorney-General’s Department, and the subsequent cover-up about it) lamented that security hadn’t played a higher-profile part in the campaign. He’s correct. And a proper debate would involve ending the conspiracy of silence between the major parties and recognising that in the purported trade-off between security and freedom, we’re both less secure, and far less free, than we were three years ago.