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Australian Spy Agency Goes 'Orwellian' with Nation's Privacy Laws

Country offered to release private information of citizens to global surveillance partners

- Jon Queally, staff writer

The secret document shows the partners discussing whether or not to share citizens' "medical, legal or religious information". (Photograph: Kacper Pempel/Reuters)Australia's spy agency offered to share the collected private data of its citizens with the so-called members of the "Five Eyes" surveillance alliance which, in addition to itself, includes the U.S., U.K., New Zealand, and Canada.

"Obtaining details of personal medical history counts as an invasion of privacy under every human rights treaty... These minutes are further evidence we are slipping into an Orwellian world." –Geoffrey Robertson, human rights attorney

Though all of these countries have now been implicated in far-reaching surveillance programs that use bulk-collection methods to spy on the telephone and online networks within their borders, Australia's exposed willingness to share the "medical, legal or religious information" of its citizens with the other nations, especially in the form of "bulk, unselected, unminimised metadata" is the basis of shocking new revelations published in the Australian Guardian on Monday.

Based on "notes from an intelligence conference" that took place in 2008 and leaked by Edward Snowden, the paper reports that the "Australian intelligence agency, then known as the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), indicated it could share bulk material without some of the privacy restraints imposed by other countries, such as Canada."

From the Guardian:

Metadata is the information we all generate whenever we use technology, from the date and time of a phone call to the location from which an email is sent.

"Bulk, unselected, unminimised metadata" means that this data is in its raw state, and nothing has been deleted or redacted in order to protect the privacy of ordinary citizens who might have been caught in the dragnet. Metadata can present a very complete picture of someone's life.

The working document, marked secret, sheds new light on the extent to which intelligence agencies at that time were considering sharing information with foreign surveillance partners, and it provides further confirmation that, to some extent at least, there is warrantless surveillance of Australians' personal metadata.

Geoffrey Robertson, a human rights lawyer with both British and Australian citizenship, said the revelations should be a warning to all of Australians, and citizens worldwide, that the loose legal interpretations shown to exist at the highest levels of these powerful intelligence agencies shows how fragile and open to abuse privacy protections have become in the modern age.

After reviewing the leaked documents, he writes:

The minutes of the policy convention show DSD representatives insouciant about sharing metadata on Australians – so long as it had been hoovered up “unintentionally” they were happy to store and to disclose it without obtaining a warrant. This is a misinterpretation of section 8. If it has been collected unintentionally it must be destroyed. Significantly, the Canadian eavesdroppers drew the line at sharing this “bulk metadata” precisely because of Canada’s privacy laws.

There are other disquieting details in the minutes of this spooks’ convention. The parties all agreed that as a result of electronic spying breakthroughs they appear to be now collecting “medical, legal and religious, or restricted business information, which may be regarded as an intrusion of privacy (my italics)”. But there is no “may” about it – obtaining details of personal medical history counts as an invasion of privacy under every human rights treaty, whilst theft of professionally privileged legal advice is contrary to the common law. These minutes are further evidence we are slipping into an Orwellian world where the state can scoop up any electronic communication, and in which DSD thinks it can lawfully tittle-tattle on Australians to foreign agencies and is even considering disclosure to “non-intelligence agencies” – police, professional associations, employers and perhaps even to newspapers.

If the surveillance agencies have acquired such powers and the ability of lawmakers to oversee the programs is continually hampered by the reverence toward secrecy, he asks, "Who is guarding the guardians?"

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