Senators' ignorance isn't bliss with new surveillance laws

Events of the past 24 hours show that Australian politicians still don't understand the issues around internet surveillance — and that's dangerous.

"The internet poses one of the greatest threats to our existence," said Senator Glen Lazarus on Thursday night. Hah! A former rugby player says something dumb, that's always funny, right? No. This mix of ignorance, fear, and sometimes plain laziness infests so many of Australia's lawmakers — and right now that's dangerous.

The Senate was debating new national security laws for Australia. Those laws passed. They give the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) expansive powers to spy on all Australian internet users , and dramatically restrict freedom of the press.

As I read the transcript of the debate, what concerns me is not the passing amusement of Senator Lazarus, but how little effort was put into probing and challenging the government's proposals more generally.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam was up for it, of course, as was independent Senator Nick Xenophon and, to a lesser extent, libertarian Senator David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democratic Party.

But where was the sustained pressure from Labor, the chief opposition party? Oh that's right, the "bipartisan approach to national security" meant that they'd already agreed to it.

Where was any technologically literate critique from anyone other than Ludlam?

Where, indeed, were the rest of the senators? "I cannot believe that here on a Thursday night this chamber is virtually empty and yet we have seen already tonight penalties increase from one to 10 years [in jail] for various things," said Greens Senator Christine Milne.

"Incredibly draconian legislation is being passed, and the minister responsible either cannot or will not answer and is smug because the opposition is going along with it."

The responsible minister, Australia's favourite Attorney-General Senator George Brandis QC, was indeed smug.

When asked by Ludlam what kinds of things, specifically, ASIO would be empowered to do under a computer access warrant, Brandis's reply was dismissive. "What ASIO would be empowered to do would be that which is authorised by the warrant, which is in turn governed by the terms of the act," he said.

When Ludlam sought clarification, Brandis answered with variants of "I do not have anything to add to my previous answer," and eventually characterised Ludlam's questioning as "attempt to filibuster this legislation and abuse the processes of this place".

The Senate passed laws which represent a massive shift in the power relationship towards the intelligence agencies. There's two more tranches of national security legislation still to come, including controversial proposals for mandatory telecommunications data retention — the so-called "metadata" issue.

Data retention is a key issue for the the Senate's inquiry into telecommunications intercept laws, which has been hearing evidence today. To judge by some of the things said, politicians' understanding hasn't improved since last year, when I wrote: "Ignorant Oz politicians prevent meaningful metadata debate" .

Today Labor Senator Jacinta Collins asked how we know that the RSPCA already has access to telecommunications metadata — despite it having become one of the standard examples used by the media to discuss the potential for surveillance overreach, and despite it being listed in the government's own Telecommunications and surveillance annual reports. What other gaps exist in this senator's knowledge and understanding of the very issue she's inquiring into?

And Liberal Senator Linda Reynolds apparently said she couldn't see how data retention equalled surveillance — despite that being the core issue.

I do hope that I misunderstood. I do hope that when the transcript appears, I'll be reassured that the senators are fully informed, and have been taking full advantage of the witnesses' time and knowledge.

That would help ensure that any new laws will strike a balance between the legitimate needs of the intelligence agencies in a changing technological environment and our civil liberties — that they'll be the best they can be. After all, if the Attorney-General himself can't even explain the concepts involved in data retention, someone needs to provide the adult supervision.

I'm not holding my breath.

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