Australia eyes wider spying on its citizens

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Conceptual image of online surveillance with a watchful eye. Image: iStock/Getty Images

Australia’s government is in damage control mode amid reports that one of its intelligence agencies might be given new legal authority to spy on private citizens without their knowledge, including via the collection of electronic data.

A leaked letter from Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo to Defense Department Secretary Greg Moriarty proposes that their respective ministers be empowered to approve monitoring and interception of text messages, emails and bank records to “disrupt and covertly remove cyber threats”, including those relating to terrorism and child exploitation.

Security analysts said the organization responsible, the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), could also compel other agencies to hand over phone records and personal data relating to financial transactions and health.

Pezzullo and Moriarty issued a joint statement with ASD director Mike Burgess insisting “there is no proposal to increase the ASD’s powers to collect intelligence on Australians or to covertly access their private data.”

Moriarty was the inaugural Commonwealth Counterterrorism coordinator at the Prime Minister and Cabinet Department.

However, a ministerial submission signed by Burgess that was forwarded to Defense Minister Marise Payne in March — one month after the leaked letter from Pezzullo was issued — referred to strategies needed to “counter or disrupt cyber-enabled criminals both onshore and offshore.”

Australia's Defence Minister Marise Payne speaks to the media in Sydney on January 5, 2017. Australia on January 5 rejected claims it tried to "recruit" Indonesia's best soldiers as it worked to mend relations with Jakarta after military ties were suspended. / AFP PHOTO / Peter PARKS

Australia’s Defence Minister Marise Payne speaks to the media in Sydney on January 5, 2017. Photo: AFP/Peter Parks

“The Department of Home Affairs advises that it is briefing the Minister for Home Affairs to write to you (Payne) seeking your support for a further tranche of legislative reform to enable ASD to better support a range of Home Affairs priorities,” the submission added.

These reforms were not specified, but the 2017 Intelligence Review called for the Cyber Security Center to be incorporated in the ASD as part of wider changes aimed at boosting coordination between intelligence agencies.

Similar reforms have already been implemented by the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK), which are Australia’s allies in the Five Eyes defense intelligence arrangement along with Canada and New Zealand.

The rebuttal by Pezzullo, Moriarty and Burgess said “the cyber security function entails protecting Australians from cyber-enabled crime and cyberattacks, and not collecting intelligence on Australians. These are two distinct functions, technically and operationally,” their statement added.

ASD monitors a vast swathe of Asia-Pacific under its “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing commitments. That includes sharing data through collection programs like XKeyscore run by the US National Security Agency (NSA), its widest-reaching system for mining intelligence from the Internet.

Data is collected by the Pine Gap defense facility near Alice Springs and the ASD’s own facilities at Shoal Bay near Darwin, Geraldton in Western Australia and a naval station near Canberra. New Zealand operates a facility at Waihopai near Blenheim.

System Security Specialist Working at System Control Center. Room is Full of Screens Displaying Various Information.

Illustration of a cybersecurity worker at a control center. Image: iStock/Getty Images

America’s NSA and its partners were at the center of revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 that huge quantities of personal data were collected through intercepts of telecommunications and internet traffic.

Snowden said that some Western governments outside Five Eyes that indirectly benefitted from collected data had complained of its intrusive programs.

The ASD is prohibited under existing laws from gathering intelligence on Australian citizens, though the Federal Police and Australian Security Intelligence Organization (Asio) counter-intelligence agency can. Both need a warrant approved by the Attorney-General, Christian Porter, to do so.

Under the proposal being discussed by the Defense and Home Affairs Departments, ASD would be able to act without Porter’s knowledge, let alone his approval. ASD is administered by the Defense Department.

Political observers believe the memo was leaked by a faction within the governing Liberal Party that is close to Foreign Affairs Minister Julia Bishop and Justice Minister Michael Keenan.

Both politicians opposed the creation of a Home Affairs “super ministry” in December with a remit to coordinate intelligence gathering and respond to domestic terror threats.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reacts as he answers questions during a media conference in Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, November 22, 2016. Photo: AAP/Lukas Coch/via Reuters

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at Parliament House, Canberra, November 22, 2016. Photo: AAP/Lukas Coch/via Reuters

Asio and the Federal Police, formerly under the Attorney-General and Justice Department, are now overseen in the new configuration by Peter Dutton, who belongs to a conservative group loyal to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Porter is another Turnbull ally; he replaced moderate George Brandis, a constant thorn in Turnbull’s side, who was appointed as High Commissioner in the UK.

Bishop, another moderate, is viewed as a potential challenger should the wilting Turnbull be pressured into a leadership vote before the next general election, which must be called on or before November 2, 2019. Her most likely opponent will be Attorney-General Porter, a rising star among conservatives.

Relations between the various factions — there are at least 10 — are so poisonous that it is unlikely any minister will risk an unpopular reform that might see him joining Brandis in exile.

So if the ASD does indeed have ambitions to expand its surveillance role, they will likely be put on ice – at least for now.

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