How Australia Is Spying On Its Own – Analysis


The Australian security state is collecting intelligence on an Orwellian scale never seen before

The Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) was caught tapping the phones of ordinary and unsuspecting Australians by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. With a history of security bungles, how wide are abuses of power by the Australian Security Apparatus?

Through rapid technology advances the Australian security apparatus has grown to an Orwellian scale. This has not necessarily been at the design of any elected government but something the Australian bureaucracy was forthright in promoting. The executive government has only superficial control over the Australian surveillance system. It is fully integrated with the NSA apparatus which immediately brings up an issue about sovereignty which has never been publicly discussed or resolved. This is not about a country’s sovereignty of land, but knowledge. The international exchange of security information is a challenge to human rights of Australian citizens.

Consequently, it is not in the interests of the Australian or US intelligence community for any public or even parliamentary discussion. The myth that the parliament and executive are in total control of government is preferred.

Through technology and its innovative applications, the concept of privacy has been reframed to the point of anything a person does outside of the home or on a computer is public domain, captured through any of the large array of assets that can be utilized for surveillance.

One fundamental premise that has grown up through the administrative arm of the Australian Government is that of compliance. Australia seems to have adopted an almost fanatical compliance culture where the administrators believe that they are the natural custodians of Australia’s security interests, over the temporarily elected politicians of the day.

Some of the methods the Australian security state utilizes for intelligence gathering, storing, and collation are well documented and summarized below:

  • With strong public backlash against the development of a national identity card system in 1986, the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) utilized the tax file number system which was necessary for anybody to be employed, claim social security benefits, and open a bank account, etc. As computer technology improved, data storage became more efficient, and data management and communications systems improved, a national government database was developed.Australia is considered a world leader in the use of technology in government administration. The Australian Government database is a highly sophisticated group of electronic document and records management system(s) (EDRMS) for collating, storing, and matching data between various agencies and levels of government on citizens. Consequently data collected by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), social security (Centrelink), Medicare, immigration, customs, and police enforcement agencies are integrated with relational databases and query systems. This is supplemented by individual agency databases with extremely detailed information on citizens. They carry an almost complete personal history of residential details going back decades, income, occupation, spouses, children, social security benefits, medical information, and travel information, etc. These systems can be accessed by almost anybody within the public service. Every agency within the government has become part of the intelligence collection network.According to academics Paul Henman and Greg Marston of the University of Queensland, these systems that enable agencies to determine client eligibility for services are highly intrusive and used with a prevailing deep suspicion of citizens in regards to their continuing eligibility for services and minimize fraud through this data surveillance.
  • The most recent revelations are about the ‘five eye’ countries eavesdropping on their citizens phone conversations, emails, and other electronic communications through meta-data collection systems like PRISM and ECHELON by the NSA. Given the fact that Australia is an equal security partner with the NSA, it is almost certain that this surveillance is also happening domestically. According to AFP assistant commissioner Neil Gaughan, Australian intelligence has a much better relationship with the telecommunications companies than the US intelligence agencies. A reliable source working within one of the Australian telephone companies when manual exchanges were operating confirmed that ASIO and state special branches had secret rooms within the exchanges to run phone tapping operations.The relatively high number of requests from Australia’s security agencies for user information from internet companies like Google compared to other countries indicate that the Australian agencies are one of the most active in the western liberal democratic world when it comes to surveillance of its own citizens.
  • The NSW police are using and Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) system which takes thousands of snapshots of car number plates which can be used to look where car have been. This is supplemented by tracking cars when they go through tolls.

The incredible power of the above described databases are exponentially enhanced with recent developments in cellular, RFID, internet, and other computer technologies. When private data in retail, banking, travel, health and insurance, etc., is linked and supplements Intelligence collected by government, the value of data becomes massively enriched. Data collected by private organizations and utilized by security services include:

  • The internet domain is under constant surveillance. Companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and twitter utilize tracking cookies to gather data on users. Australian security agencies employ private contractors like the National Open Source Intelligence Centre (NOSIC) to monitor, collate, and report on publically accessible information about individuals and organizations.
  • Many business organizations such as shopping centres and banks now utilize CCTV. These assets can be utilized by security organizations to track and monitor individuals. This is now being supplemented with media access control (MAC) systems which can track smartphones, already used in three Westfield shopping centres. CCTV and smartphone tracking are not covered by privacy laws.
  • Numerous private databases like electronic tenancy database which has detailed information about your tenancy history, insurance company records that detail your insured assets, bank records, and university records can all be accessed by security agencies.
  • Mobile phones can be used as a means to track people through inbuilt GPS on smartphones, triangulation, or through electronic data-collectors designed to identify individual mobile phones in strategic places.
  • People’s purchases and movements can be tracked through the use of credit, debit, and loyalty card purchases.

Each piece of data in isolation can only provide a limited profile of any individual. However the power of information today is being able to collate, merge, and combine separate pieces of information so that a full and rich profile can be developed. For example when internet data is combined with purchases, phone calls, emails, and movements, a powerful profile can be created. Data from social media like Facebook can enhance these profiles greatly by adding thought and behavior information. Therefore emails, phones calls, places people go, and purchase history, in the context of other data collected has the latent potential to build up a profile on anybody. It’s the collection of small bits of information that can be collated into big pictures. Australian intelligence can retro-actively analyse anybody with the data they have access to.

In addition government agencies have had the power to search your meta-data without your knowledge and any warrant since 2007 when amendments to the Telecommunications (Interception & Access) Act 1974 were made during the last days of the Howard Government. CCTV cameras have been installed in many communities without the development of privacy policies on how they should be used. The law has yet to catch up with the ability to collect data. This has happened without much public resistance as it has occurred under the threshold of social awareness.

Up until the 1980’s most intelligence gathering was targeted monitoring of specific groups where ‘persons of interest’ were identified for intensive surveillance. ASIO and state special branches were videotaping activists primarily from the ‘left’. Trade unionists, human rights activists, ethnic community groups, religious leaders, and even governors were targets. Surveillance was undertaken by ASIO and state special branches, where operatives used electronic means for eavesdropping, keeping index cards and files on ‘persons of interest’, recording mainly hearsay information. Government databases were agency based and most often localized with little or no connection to larger databases. Cross referencing people on these various databases was extremely time consuming and very difficult.

Even then, red flags emerged as academic Peter Grabosky from the Australian Bureau of Criminology pointed out that ‘thought and discussion of public issues may be suppressed……and….excess use of (surveillance) may inhibit democratic and political freedom more subtly’. In addition, there was evidence that malicious accusations made from erroneous records produce false information which made innocent people suffer at the hands of the security agencies where these records are not assessable to be corrected for errors. The Mohamed Haneef arrest by the AFP in July 2007 where it was alleged he was connected with a terrorist cell in the UK, but later exonerated, hints at the security services being very territorial and ‘out of control’, where ASIO knew of Dr. Haneef’s innocence but didn’t advise the APF.

Bureaucrats were the ones defining who were the enemies of the state. There was a general inability to discriminate between healthy dissent in a political democracy and subversion. Where no tangible threats existed to national security, lesser ones were perceived to be grave threats or even invented. There seems to be an impulse by those within the security services to justify their existence and perpetuate what they are doing. What-more, they didn’t see themselves responsible to the elected government of the day, but rather The Crown. This encouraged an attitude that they were not accountable for their actions to the executive of the day.

The rise of surveillance should not be understood as purely a technological development. It should be seen as a broader economic, social, and political paradigm shift within society where the balance of power has shifted away from the people and towards the state. There also appears to be a shift of power away from executive government towards an unelected bureaucracy. What makes this even more perplexing is that we don’t even know who these people really are.

There is no transparency, no review, nor any accountability.

We find out that that intelligence data is passed on to assist private corporations like the mining giant BHP. Moreover, the human rights website WEBMOBILIZE alleges in a recent article that the Australian security apparatus is being used to steal intellectual property from companies and passing it over illegally to its competitors. Some of the organizations that have been alleged to receive unlawfully gained IP include the University of Melbourne, Ageis Media, Telstra, Sensis, Deakin University, Belgravia Health and Business Group, Channel Nine, Nine Entertainment, Nine MSN, Corporate health management, Fairfax media, the herald Sun, The Guardian, Nintendo, and the Australian labor party and Liberal national party. This interlinked relationship between private corporations and the intelligence agencies is allowing some corporations to benefit over others illegally, subsidized by taxpayer dollars.

There has been little in the way of public debate, nor much concern shown by the major political parties. The issues raised by surveillance, now on the Orwellian scale in Australia, are concerning as they are operating at a much higher magnitude than any other liberal democracy.

The powers to detain anyone under section 34D of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization Act 1979 for up to seven days without the right to reveal their detention, resembles the mechanisms of a police state.

The Australian Government collects more information on its citizens than the East German Stasi did on its citizens during the cold war. As Eric Schmidt of Google says “surveillance is just part of society now”. What is important to understand now is surveillance is not something external to the individual. We actually live within the “matrix” of surveillance of which we cannot escape.

With an annual growth rate of more than 20% with a budget of over $4 Billion, ASIO has a new $500 Million building in Canberra and a secret data storage facility is being built at the HMAS Harman Naval Base, near Canberra, where details are except from public account committees. When other government programs are being cut, the deep philosophical question of why there is a need to continue the increase of funding for surveillance of the nation’s citizens.

This vast intrusion has been overtly justified on the basis of fighting terrorism. However there appears to be more sinister reasons – to protect the system of state. And in the Australian context this has great fiscal needs in ensuring revenue collection continues to be sufficient to support the running of government. Newly uncovered evidence suggests that ASIO has gone to great lengths to spy on people who have broken no laws.

The rapid increase in staff within ASIO from 618 in 2000 to 1860 in 2010 has meant that the organization now primarily relies upon young and inexperienced analysts in their 20s and 30s. This means that Australia is at the mercy of a “Gen Y” culture that has grown up connected to the cyber world where a sense of privacy is very different to generation before them.

Mass surveillance doesn’t seem to have much to do with terrorism as it has to do with keeping check on what people are doing. It seems to be more of an intimidating compliance mechanism, aimed at protecting public revenue, preventing and detecting crime, tax evasion, and fraud.

Through Australia’s history Australian Security Agencies have blundered in the assessments they have made on many issues. The 2004 Flood report commenting on the “failure of intelligence” on Iraq stated that these weaknesses included “a failure to rigorously challenge preconceptions”, and the absence of a “consistent and rigorous culture of challenge to and engagement with intelligence reports”. Flood found an inconsistency in assessments and very shallow analytical abilities within the security agencies he examined. In addition on many occasions, particularly during the Howard years, intelligence analysis were ‘bastardized” by political agenda. Those who criticize the political agenda run the risk of being reframed from dissidents into deviants who come under security surveillance. The question here, can government with a long history of cover-ups be trusted?

The dream of a fair, just, and equitable Australian society where sovereignty is in the hands of its citizens may be one of the greatest myths. Australia’s surveillance on its own has eaten into and taken away many of the rights and liberties of Australians, turning society into one of mistrust.

The growth of domestic intelligence gathering we see today is almost irreversible which hints at some form of “Animal Farm” leadership who is defining what our “truths” are. An important question here is who is actually doing this is it is not our elected politicians? This can really be satisfactorily answered based on any public domain knowledge. We can only make guesses. However one undeniable fact is that there is presently a hidden and totally unaccountable part of government that is changing the nature of society. It is here where no media organizations are asking any questions. Until this is answered we are living in an illusion about what our society really is.

We have entered into a new period of governance as significant as the French revolution, or the Magna Carta, and beginning of the Westminster system. We are now in an age of governance through surveillance of the masses by a few unknown elite and unaccountable people. Communist totalitarianism may have collapsed in Europe in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union, but the “free world’s” version of surveillance and intelligence would have make Stalin, Honecker, and Ceauşescu very jealous.

The lack of transparency is becoming indefensible. Without scrutiny the Australian security apparatus is the loose cannon of the Bureaucracy which will cause many reverberations like the destruction of peoples’ livelihoods through IP theft, or the ruining of peoples’ reputations through persecution.

There has never been a public mandate for the development of such an extensive surveillance program. Is the money being spent justified?

Murray Hunter

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.

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