Internet privacy advocates demand data surveillance transparency from Australian authorities

Internet privacy advocates demand data surveillance transparency from Australian authorities

Internet privacy advocates demand data surveillance transparency from Australian authorities

Updated 11 June 2013, 21:34 AEST

Australian privacy advocates are demanding transparency from authorities on how much local data is being captured by US security agencies.

Australian privacy advocates are demanding authorities be more transparent on how much local data is being captured by United States security agencies.

US president Barack Obama confirmed this week that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been running the clandestine internet surveillance program, PRISM.

As details of the massive surveillance project are slowly revealed, Australian businesses and individuals are wondering how much of their private information has been captured.

It has also renewed fears about storing sensitive data on cloud services overseas.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus says all Australians would be concerned at the potential for their privacy to be invaded by other countries accessing their internet data.

Mr Dreyfus says there needs to be a balance between people's privacy and giving law enforcement agencies sufficient powers, but refused to say whether Australian agencies have had information passed onto them from the US program.

"What we would wish for, and what certainly the government is going to insist on, is that there be the rule of law and proper checks and balances everywhere in the world," Mr Dreyfus said.

"That's what the balance is going to be about."

Data surveillance requires 'greater deal of scrutiny'

What is PRISM?


  • Eavesdropping program used by US intelligence agencies
  • Allegedly allows the National Security Agency (NSA) and the FBI direct access to servers to track an individual's web presence
  • Reports Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Apple, AOL, Skype and YouTube among those involved
  • Data monitored could include search histories, emails, social media interactions, connection logs, audio and video
  • Washington Post says PRISM program is the most significant contributor to US president Barack Obama's daily briefings, accounting for one in seven intelligence reports

But independent Senator Nick Xenophon says Australian authorities should come clean on how much data from Australian users the NSA system has ingested.

"We know that there have been approximately 1,000 internal requests a week for metadata on Australians' phone and internet records," Mr Xenophon said.

"I think we need to know about the interaction between American law enforcement authorities and our law enforcement authorities.

"What is clear from the information given at a recent Senate Estimates inquiry... is that there are powers to get this data, to intercept this data.

"[It] doesn't require any warrants, it doesn't require any oversight and I think that requires a greater deal of scrutiny."

Privacy activists in Australia and overseas say vast amounts of content produced by citizens outside the US would have been scooped up by the NSA's PRISM system.

It has caused experts to rethink the risks versus rewards of using data storage and processing networks offered by massive American tech companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Dr Alana Maurushat, from the Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre at the University of New South Wales, says some businesses and privacy-aware individuals will move their data from the US server cloud.

She says the use of the storage networks could be seen as too risk adverse for businesses storing certain information.

"For other businesses it won't affect much about what they do," Dr Maurushat said.

"The reality is the cloud brings so many other tangible advantages that they won't be able to resist migrating their IT service platforms there."

Scale of surveillance could change privacy outlook

In the past some in business and government circles have shied away from using US cloud technology, worried about data falling into the hands of foreign governments and hackers.

Last December the US ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich dismissed the concerns and accused those expressing them as being interested in protecting the local industry.

But Dr Maurushat says now that the scale of the NSA surveillance has become slightly clearer, there may be a change of outlook.

"The two companies ... with the most amount of investment are Amazon and Microsoft at the moment," she said.

"But there are a number of excellent European companies in the cloud computing field where privacy is protected at a much higher level, so what you may start to see is these companies start to advertise themselves better.

"You may see businesses migrating to places with stronger privacy protection and maybe more guarantees in terms of what kind of data is [monitored] and what isn't."

A Pew Research Centre survey today found a majority of people in the US support the government focusing on investigating possible terrorist threats, even if their privacy is compromised as a result.