Edward Snowden’s latest NSA leak is a doozy for Australians. In 2008, Australia’s surveillance agency, the Defence Signals Directorate (now known as the Australian Signals Directorate), offered to share the private information of Australian citizens with foreign intelligence agencies.
The most troubling aspect of this latest revelation is a discussion that reportedly took place between a global intelligence community known as the Five Eyes—the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—regarding the sharing of citizens’ “medical, legal and religious information,” according to the Guardian.
The recently released document has added weight to the argument that major intelligence powers, who operate hand-in-hand with the U.S. National Security Agency, are exceeding the bounds of their legal mandates, and that their surveillance techniques violate the civil liberties of international citizens.
According to screenshots provided by the Guardian, the document states that the "DSD can share bulk, unselected, unminimised metadata as long as there is no intent to target an Australian national."
In terms of email, metadata refers to information such as the identity and location of the sender/recipient, but does not include, specifically, the content of a message. When referring to cellphone tracking, metadata may include GPS coordinates, the identities of parties engaged in a call, as well as the duration of the conversation, but not the conversation itself. The U.S. government has argued that since the actual content of the conversations are not observed, the violation to a citizen’s personal privacy is minimal.
However, the idea that metadata collection is harmless has been refuted by many privacy advocates. If an intelligence agency can observe an individual’s communications on a daily basis—that is, measure how long he or she speaks, with whom, and from where—arguably, the acquisition of this information can actually be much more invasive than simply wiretapping a conversation. By collecting this type of data en masse, an NSA analyst could potentially piece together an accurate model of an individual's motivations, habits, religious and political affiliations, and so on.
Another argument against metadata collection is that the public knowledge of this kind of surveillance curtails free speech, an idea that has been expressed by investigative journalists around the world.
This latest disclosure is particularly troubling for Australians, as the willingness of their government to submit information about private citizens to foreign intelligence services shows a disregard for privacy rights, not to mention judicial oversight. As the Guardian notes, revealing this document “provides further confirmation that, to some extend at least, there is warrantless surveillance of Australians’ personal metadata.”
One of the primary issues, discussed by the Five Eyes during a conference at British intelligence headquarters in April 2008, was the bulk collection of information. Bulk collection generally refers to the practice of gathering intelligence en masse, without specifically targeting individuals authorized under a judicial warrant.
According to the Guardian, while Canadian authorities had expressed the desire to limit bulk collection of their citizen’s data, Australian intelligence services offered to provide the same data, on its own citizens, without prior filtering or examination.
A human rights attorney, writing for the Guardian, claims that if the document is an accurate portrayal of events, Australian intelligence services may be in breach of the law, which requires ministerial authorisation to wiretap private citizens in the manner discussed.
Following the Guardian's release of the new documents, Australia's Federal Attorney General George Brandis, speaking before the Senate, referred to Edward Snowden as a traitor as he addressed privacy concerns.
“I am aware of reports published this morning by the Guardian Australia which make certain claims about the alleged activities of Australia’s intelligence organisations,” said Brandis. “Those claims are made on the basis of material placed in the public domain by the American traitor Edward Snowden.”