Satellite groundstation. Image: Wutsje (Wikimedia)

Satellite groundstation. Image: Wutsje (Wikimedia)

EFA has suspected since the existence of the NSA’s global internet surveillance program PRISM was revealed recently by whistleblower Ed Snowden, that Australian intelligence agencies have been receiving information from this program about Australians. Australian intelligence agencies have a long-established close working relationship with their counterparts in the US and other Anglosphere countries under an arrangement known as ‘the Five Eyes’.

Last week, Fairfax Media confirmed that Australian intelligence agencies are receiving “huge volumes” of information from PRISM and other US signals intelligence collection programs. As Fairfax’s Australian source has stated, “'We are overwhelmingly dependent on intelligence obtained by the NSA and the US intelligence community more broadly". So deep is Australia’s involvement that the government has been building a secret data storage facility at Canberra’s HMAS Harman Naval base to deal with the ‘deluge’ of data they are collecting. Given the rapidly falling costs and space requirements for data storage, the fact that this new facility is required provides some insight into just how much data is being collected.

This new data centre, nearing completion now, is five years late and 80% over budget, but as Fairfax points out, the Labor government exempted the project from review by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works on the grounds that scrutiny ''would not be in the public interest''. This is clearly an absurd assertion. It is the role of Parliament to determine what is in the public interest and the lack of accountability on this $150 million project should be a concern to all Australians.

The revelation that Australian intelligence is receiving information from the PRISM and other US surveillance programs is in line with the recent confirmation that the UK’s GCHQ (their equivalent of Australia’s about-to-be-renamed Defence Signals Directorate) has also been receiving information from US intelligence about British citizens and residents, allegedly in contravention of UK data protection laws. More recently, The Guardian has reported that GCHQ has also intercepted foreign politicians' communications at G20 summits.

The continuing revelations about the scale and scope of data surveillance (and whistleblower Ed Snowden assures us that there is still more to come) raise a number of serious questions that the Australian government needs to answer.

To date, the government has hidden behind its standard ‘we don’t comment on national security matters’ line, but as the US government has confirmed the existence of PRISM and as the amount of information about the program in the public domain continues to increase, this lack of transparency is becoming increasingly indefensible. This is especially true as the Australian government has not provided any public evidence that this mass data gathering has made us any safer from terrorist attacks or other serious crimes. The failure of surveillance to stop incidents such as the Boston bombings (at least one of the perpetrators of which was already known to intelligence agencies) and the recent murder in London raises serious questions about the effectiveness of collecting masses of data, and about the cost-effectiveness of this approach, particularly when it involves serious risks of abuse or misuse of data and the ever-present risk of such data falling into the ‘wrong hands’.

Last night, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam introduced amendments to the Telecommunications Interception and Access Act to ensure government agencies must get a warrant to request telecommunications data. Given that in 2011-2012 there were nearly 300,000 requests made for such data without the need for a warrant, EFA agrees that this is a dangerous loophole in need of closing. Unfortunately, the major parties united to vote down this amendment.

Australians have a right to be informed about the nature and the scope of surveillance that affects them, particularly when this surveillance involves a foreign government, no matter how close an ally, and to know that this surveillance is subject to appropriate safeguards and authorisation.

EFA calls on the government to come clean with the Australian people about the involvement of Australian intelligence agencies in the PRISM and other foreign surveillance programs, and calls on the opposition to support the government in providing this much-needed transparency.

EFA is committed to opposing society-wide surveillance and is particularly opposed to the proposed new surveillance powers, including mandatory data retention, that have recently been considered by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, whose report is now well overdue.

EFA has launched a new campaign - Citizens, Not Suspects - through which we are fighting the unprecedented extension of surveillance powers.  If you're opposed to mass surveillance of citizens, please support this campaign.

EFA has also joined other digital rights rights groups around the world in supporting the and Bestbits campaigns, which are putting pressure on the US Congress to come clean with the public and dismantle these programs. We urge to support these campaigns as well.