My following article appears in today’s Guardian Australia:
Politicians and journalists ignore public opinion at their peril. Less than two weeks after the explosive revelations by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden on the creation of a privatised, American surveillance apparatus, a TIME poll finds a majority of Americans support the leak, and Snowden receives a higher approval rating than US citizens view Congress. History has also been kind to one of the great leakers in history, the Pentagon Paper’s Daniel Ellsberg (who backs Snowden, too). Never under-estimate the public’s desire to discover what the state is doing in its name.
In Australia, however, the story has barely caused a ripple. Attorney general Mark Dreyfus refuses to acknowledge that Canberra receives information from the Prism system, instead saying that Australians should rest easy and feel protected by the warm glow of intelligence sharing with Washington. In reality, evidence has emerged that the Labor government is building a massive data storage facility to manage massive amounts of information from the US. Unsurprisingly, the US claims its monitoring is proportionate and legal, despite some members of Congress having no idea of the scope of the secret programs.
This is spying by any other name – and Snowden makes clear that everybody is doing it, despite protestations from Australia and America that only China is unleashing constant cyber attacks (Foreign Policy recently revealed that the NSA hacks into Chinese systems).
Dreyfus tried to appease whatever public anger exists – and thus far it’s been muted – by calling an inquiry into protection of information in the digital age. The Federal Greens rightly want far greater transparency on government surveillance, knowing that both Labor and the likely incoming Liberal government have spent decades colluding on ever-expanding powers of security services to monitor and track citizens with little accountability. Don’t expect support from the privacy commissioner, either, who shrugged his shoulders and implied in a statement that national security should trump privacy. Nothing to see here, move along now.
It’s shocking that so few Australians even know about the existence of the intimate intelligence sharing known as “five eyes” between Britain, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Trust the system, we’re told by The Australian’s editorial last week; it isn’t just “extreme libertarians” who question the prevalence of the surveillance state. Australia’s role as a US ally should never be to blindly accept dictates from Washington though if history is any guide Canberra sits too comfortably under America’s hypnotic war machine.
If this current assault on our communications isn’t bad enough, the growth of internet censorship and the private companies that back it is a growing issue across the world, including Australia and Asia-Pacific. Although Labor’s plans for web filtering were squashed, it’s inevitable that such calls will grow in the coming years, as is already happeningacross the globe. Besides, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore are just some of our neighbours that proudly restrict access for their citizens.
Democracies are increasingly being pushed into a pincer move of censorship and surveillance that would be impossible without the co-operation of private firms making billions in profits. The US hires corporations to monitor social media; Israeli-linked companies have been essential in assisting the NSA spying program as well as, in one case, selling Big Brother monitors to Egypt’s Mubarak and Libya’s Qaddafi.
Snowden’s NSA revelations only touched the surface of the deep collaboration between government and outsourcers. US journalist Tim Shorrock estimates that about 70% of America’s intelligence budget is spent on private industry since 9/11. The extent of the NSA’s cyber army is enough, according to a feature in Wired, to “launch devastating cyber attacks”.
Whistle-blowers are an essential part of any democracy, despite the bleating of officials in Canberra, London and Washington. Governments are only outraged when embarassing leaks are finally unveiled; they continually give details to the press that makes them look strong.
The largely supine response of the Australian parliament to the Prism revelations – with opposition spokesman Malcolm Turnbull being a notable exception – proves how far this country is from proudly displaying an independent streak. Global surveillance, along with internet censorship, is a threat to both our personal freedom and ability to communicate openly.
The post 9/11 world has taught us that states exaggerate threats to scare citizens into acquiescence. Multinationals have picked a side and it’s the bottom line. Shining a light on the NSA and its global couriers is a public service that is only opposed by those with a vested interest in keeping the public in the dark.