Australia Spying Law Meets Grassroots Resistance

The proposal would require telecommunications companies to store personal information about all Australians for up to two years and allow law-enforcement agencies to access it at will. (Photo: Dan Machold/flickr/cc)

Australia Spying Law Meets Grassroots Resistance

Civil rights groups fight proposed mandatory data retention bill sold as "balance between freedom and security"

With invasive surveillance bills looming in the Australian Senate, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott having recently described a proposed bill to legalize spying on Australian citizens as necessary to "make it easier to keep potential terrorists off the streets," civil rights groups on Monday launched campaigns aimed at protecting privacy rights in the country.

The spying proposal, which will be voted on in Parliament at the end of October, would require telecommunications companies to store personal information about all Australians for up to two years and allow law-enforcement agencies to access it at will.

"Regrettably for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift," Abbott said during a speech in Parliament last month, adding that the "inconvenience" of heightened spying laws were a "small price to pay for saving lives and for maintaining the social fabric of an open, free and multicultural nation."

Abbott used recent alleged terrorist threats in Australia to frame his warning that "Australians will have to endure more security than we're used to."

But many civil rights and privacy watchdogs have spoken out against the risks of expanded surveillance laws such as the one Abbott supports. On Monday, a grassroots campaign called Stop the Spies was launched against the proposal, which the organizers say will "treat every single citizen as a suspect worthy of constant intrusive surveillance."

"These plans are made on the pretext of fighting terrorism, but they really belong in a police state," Stop the Spies explains. "Even if this information were only being collected to fight terrorism--and this is far from clear--there remains a frightening risk that it will be misused or fall into the wrong hands."

Also at issue is the cost of the data retention program, which would fall on the Australian taxpayers; Stop the Spies notes that the country's second-largest ISP "has estimated the cost of the mandatory data retention proposal at an extra $130 per customer, per year."

As civil liberties watchdog group Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, the metadata that would be legally collected under the "Orwellian law" includes:

What you searched for before emailing your lawyer. Who you Skyped with afterwards. Who they have Skyped with. Where you were when chatting with your partner last night. The websites you visit during your lunchbreak.

A similar data retention law went before the European Union Court of Justice earlier this year and was struck down for its violations of human rights. At the time, the court called the mandate "an interference with the fundamental rights of practically the entire European population."

Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said mandatory data retention laws introduced in the United Kingdom were "dangerous" and "disturbing."

Yet despite the recent global pushback against warrantless surveillance, Abbott has said that the government should do "whatever is possible" to keep Australians safe.

The bill follows in the foreboding footsteps of another proposal that passed last month that enables security agencies to monitor the Australian internet with just one warrant and threatens whistleblowers and journalists with 10-year prison sentences for disclosing classified information. Other laws, including one that would allow people to be detained without charge as a "preventive" measure and put indefinite gag orders on reporting of those lock-ups, are currently being considered in the Senate.

Freedom of the Press Foundation, Committee to Protect Journalists, and Electronic Frontier Foundation previously warned that those new powers would drastically impact journalism and free speech in the country.

"Censorship and mass surveillance have no place in enlightened democracies," said Trevor Timm, the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

EFF international director Danny O'Brien added, "None of these laws make Australians safer: by capturing and hoarding their private data, widening the government's secret powers, and silencing dissent, they all contribute to weakening the digital security of innocent citizens, and destroying the checks and balances that rein back spooks and the executive that thinks it controls them."

In their opposition to the proposal, Stop the Spies is joined by Citizens Not Suspects, a collaborative effort by Electronic Frontiers Australia and, which notes that "a mandatory, society-wide data retention regime represents a massive invasion of the privacy of all Australians."

"There are already more than sufficient powers available to Australia's intelligence and law enforcement agencies to have information retained about communications involving 'persons of interest'," Citizens Not Suspects states. "There is no justification for this information to be retained on the rest of society."

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