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Edward Snowden: should Australians be worried?

By Peter Coates - posted Thursday, 13 June 2013

Edward Snowden’s activities over the last week have thrust internet and broader communications surveillance back into the limelight . This happens now and then, but whistle-blowers rarely release rather sensitive slides to the media. The Snowden-PRISM affair has thrown up all sorts of issues including: civil liberties; privacy; secrecy in a democracy; the costs of protecting us from terrorists; and, is Edward a whistle-blower, traitor or both?

In defence of PRISM President Obama has told American’s not to worry. PRISM is designed to spy on foreigners. Does that mean us? We’ll never know.

A rather embarrassing reality is that America’s electronic surveillance regime, apparently forced on transnational internet and communications companies, is now looking a little like China’s. The people at Huawei might be wondering why it is that their company has been locked out of contracts like the NBN because of THEIR alleged links to intelligence agencies? Is it about Huawei possibly being a security threat or Huawei being a competitive threat to transnational corporations headquartered in America and Europe?


Civil liberties

PRISM grew out of an international emergency, but never went away. Soon after 9/11, the Bush Administration decided that to effectively fight the War on Terror, the normal system of warrants (one per phone-tap) could be bypassed. This political decision to bypass that judicial obstacle has given the NSA a highly intrusive capability in the US and probably everywhere else.

All this poses significant dangers to the rights of Americans to privacy and freedom from excessive government power. This may also pose dangers for Australians.

We public don't know whether Australia has gone as far down the road as the US regarding warrantless phone-taps and related mass datamining. Certainly many companies on the internet are into datamining. The proof is in the personally tailor-made advertisements that follow us around the net.

We also don't know the full extent of domestic operations of the Australia's Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) because information is rationed out. DSD is the equivalent of America’s NSA, However DSD has a website and they are fairly forthcoming on some things within security constraints. More is known about ASIO, another player in Australia’s communications security network.

The physics of modern digital communications mean that national borders no longer count. This is because today communications, carried by satellite, landlines or undersea cables, almost always consist of a computer-scrambled mixture of foreign and domestic phone calls, SMS and internet messages. Calls between Sydney and Melbourne might be partially routed through foreign telephone exchanges such as those in Hawaii or Los Angeles. Many internet servers we use for our daily emails are located in the US, hence wide open to American scrutiny.


This domestic/foreign call mixing has led to increasing legal and political problems for intelligence organisations with specific domestic and/or foreign mandates. Organisations, like the NSA, may be sifting by keyword search through millions of calls and emails simultaneously. PRISM may just be a limited subset of much broader surveillance programs.

Some Safeguards

The first safeguard against excessive NSA surveillance power might well be the sense of responsibility of staff in DSD, ASIO and Australian police forces to protect us from it.

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About the Author

Peter Coates has been writing articles on military, security and international relations issues since 2006. In 2014 he completed a Master’s Degree in International Relations, with a high distinction average. His website is Submarine Matters.

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