Australian law enforcement agencies were issued 243,631 warrants to obtain telecommunications logs in the period from July 2010 to June 2011. According to Greens' Senator Scott Ludlam, that vastly overshadowed the 3500-odd legal intercepts of communications and makes us part of what privacy activist Jacob Appelbaum calls the "surveillance planet".
The data is from the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 Annual Report for the year ending 30 June 2011, which reports on the usage and effectiveness of the three categories of warrants to conduct surveillance.
To obtain a warrant to conduct an intercept — that is, to record the contents of communications — law enforcement agencies must believe that the target is involved in a serious crime for which they could be jailed for seven years or more.
However there's a much lower threshold to obtain so-called telecommunications data, which is everything except the content of the communication itself — for example, the source's internet protocol (IP) address, the addressee, and the latitude and longitude of the location a phone call was made from.
"[This data also includes] the URLs that you visited, but not the web page itself, which I think is kind of funny," Ludlam told the Penguin Dinner at the Linux.conf.au (LCA) conference in Ballarat last night.
A much wider range of agencies can obtain communications data warrants, including any agency that collects government revenue.
The report reveals that the agencies granted warrants in 2010-2011 ranged from the Australian Federal Police, state police forces and the Department of Defence to the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, the Royal Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Queensland and Victoria, the Victorian Taxi Directorate and Victoria's Transport Accident Commission.
The third category, stored communications interception warrants, allow agencies to access stored emails and voicemails — "Rupert Murdoch coming with a warrant," quipped Ludlam. In 2010-2011 only 298 such warrants were issued.
None of these figures include intercepts conducted by the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
Ludlam believes the balance between these figures is wrong.
"There should be a higher standard of proof, or a higher standard of cause needing to be shown, to track down your every location through your life than there is for reading your email," he said.
"We've already taken some pretty dangerous steps in this country towards the surveillance state, and not that many of us are either interested or aware that it's going on, including people like me who should know better... Our friend and ally the United States is transitioning quite rapidly into an authoritarian state."
Ludlam's comments were echoed this morning by Jacob Appelbaum, an internet security professional, research scientist at the University of Washington's Security and Privacy Lab, and a developer for privacy-enhancing tool The Tor Project.
Calling mobile phones "tracking devices that also make phone calls", and pointing out that the technologies used for legal interception in western nations is precisely the same technology used to identify and dissidents in places like Syria and Egypt, Appelbaum questioned the morality of the IT industry and those who work for intelligence agencies such as Australia's Defence Signals Directorate (DSD).
"My understanding is that what the [US] Department of Defense and the DSD people have in common with Egypt is that they like to work with the CIA," he said.
"My country kidnaps people and sends them to Egypt for torture. The CIA does that. And the CIA also works with the DSD."
Appelbaum also linked internet censorship, such as that envisaged under the Australian Government's internet filtering policy, with ubiquitous surveillance, because before you can decide whether to allow access to content or not, you must first inspect all communications content to see what it is.
"When people want to censor your internet, what they are saying is they wish to be your master. They wish to have secrecy. They wish to have the ability to know about this content, but you're not allowed to know about this content. They have the privilege, and you don't have the privilege," he said.
China's internet censorship regime, often referred to as the "Great Firewall", is more like a spider web, said Appelbaum.
"If we built our roads the way the Chinese and the rest of the world is building their internet, we'd have a camera and a microphone and a policeman on every corner watching everything we do as a prerequisite for building the road."
In his dinner speech, Ludlam also noted the recent changes to the government's administration of cybersecurity policy, including the replacement of Attorney-General Robert McLelland with Nicola Roxon — "I personally think that's fantastic," he said — and the shifting of the national cybersecurity strategy to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
"This [is] a portfolio that obviously traverses foreign affairs, Attorney-General's [Department], national security, defence, communications, copyright and so on. It's a very important portfolio, so it's interesting that to be drawn together in one place is not necessarily a bad thing," Ludlam said.
"We have a new attorney-general who I think is going to do a better job, I hope, on this stuff than the previous one. But I think it's still a developing question as to what that means... That agenda will not go away, it'll just mutate."
Both Jacob Appelbaum and Senator Scott Ludlam are speaking at Saturday's forum War on the Internet, along with Crikey's Canberra correspondent Bernard Keane and Suelette Dreyfus, author of the book Underground about the hacker scene of the 1990s. Wikileaks' Julian Assange will be sending a video message.