Can Australia's digital spooks escape an NSA-level backlash?

Can Australia's digital spooks escape an NSA-level backlash?

Summary: Lavabit and Silent Circle's secure email services have been shut down as part of a generational-scale anti-surveillance pushback, but only US and UK agencies are under the microscope. Why not Australia?


Sometimes, I'm glad to be proven wrong, and this is one of those times. A few weeks ago, over at Crikey, I worried that the feral goldfish of our Ritalin-deficient global media would soon lose interest in the complex US National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance story, and focus instead on the more personal story of the manhunt for Edward Snowden.

Boy, was I wrong!

Security-conscious email provider Lavabit shut itself down today, rather than "become complicit in crimes against the American people," as founder Ladar Levison put it. "I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot... The first amendment is supposed to guarantee me the freedom to speak out in situations like this. Unfortunately, Congress has passed laws that say otherwise."

Soon after, Silent Circle closed its own secure email service — although its other services remain open, because it employs more secure end-to-end encryption than SMTP email. "We see the writing on the wall, and we have decided that it is best for us to shut down Silent Mail now. We have not received subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else by any government, and this is why we are acting now," wrote chief technical officer Jon Callas.

The closure of Lavabit, believed to have been Edward Snowden's email provider, is one thing; the closure of Silent Circle is quite another — because its founders include people with informed, level-headed views of the military and intelligence establishments. They're not exactly renegades. And nor is security megastar Bruce Schneier, who recently joined the board of digital rights lobby group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) precisely because he's concerned about the NSA's activities.

Now, I've been an armchair observer of all things spookish since my teen wargamer days. I know how codebreakers enabled the Allies to win World War II, while simultaneously kicking off the digital revolution, and I've read plenty about what's happened since then. So many of the current "revelations" about the NSA fail to shock me.

But I've already expressed my astonishment at what I called the "pan-galactic scale of the NSA's baleen whale of surveillance". I've noted the apparent involvement of Britain's NSA equivalent, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), at a level that even the UK's domestic security agency MI5 found alarming.

Here in Australia, Coalition communications spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull has raised the issue with the US government, and "sought clarification" — no everyday event, given the usual bipartisan approach to defence and security issues.

When establishment politicians, internet entrepreneurs, and respected security specialists all start questioning the NSA's activities, you know something is very, very wrong. Indeed, to me it now feels like we're seeing a groundswell of opposition to what some have quite rightly called a "surveillance state" at a level that's seen in Western nations only once each generation.

Think the Vietnam Moratorium. Think, in Australia and especially New Zealand, opposition to French nuclear testing at Moruroa and Fangataufa.

But where in all of this is a discussion of Australia's role, and particularly the role of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), formerly the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD)? After all, Australia is one of the Five Eyes, too.

Now, I've no reason to think that the ASD is operating unconstitutionally here in Australia — and in any event, our constitution doesn't have the same civil rights protection as America's. But as ABC TV's Four Corners noted, ASD is even more secretive than the NSA, so we have no way of knowing for sure. And, like the US, our government passed wide-ranging secrecy laws following the now-distant and now largely irrelevant tragedy of 9/11 with little debate.

Apart from Senator Scott Ludlam of the Greens and his persistent questioning, most recently asking whether Australian surveillance agencies are, like GCHQ, also on the NSA's payroll, none of our elected politicians seem terribly interested in this stuff. And none of our internet companies have hinted at shutting shop.

(Calm yourselves, Pirate Party, WikiLeaks Party, and friends. I said "elected" politicians. You're not there ... yet.)

Maybe it's Australia's "she'll be right" attitude, but personally, I thought our political and business leaders would be asking more questions.

Topics: Privacy, Government, Government AU, Security


Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust.

He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit trap, clear a jam in an IBM model 026 card punch and mix a mean whiskey sour.

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  • Smug Americans

    Can someone explain what rights Americans have, and why that list is so short (if it exists at all).
    • The list of rights

      consists of a little over 20 articles in the US constitution, not all of which are rights for citizens (like number 16, which gives the federal government the right to collect taxes on income). The first 10 are considered the most important, and each one can be applied in many different situations.

      Unfortunately, the US government in recent years either twists their meaning and increasingly outright ignores it (particularly those that imply a right to privacy as well as those that say certain powers should go to the state and local governments). With the education system in the state it's in, the average American can't name a single article or amendment in that constitution to save their lives (or their rights) and can't tell you what they mean when they speak of "muh freedoms", and that is if they care at all.
      • Knowing your rights

        you say, "With the education system in the state it's in, the average American can't name a single article or amendment in that constitution to save their lives "

        With the possible exception of the second amendment - the right to bear arms. Some say that this is necessary as a check to government tyranny, but the evidence seems to be that abridgement of the other freedoms does not, generally, bring Americans out with guns. Only the threat of black helicopters does that - I suspect that the federal government could curtail most of the other freedoms through the courts and the guns would be kept exclusively for Americans to shoot each other.
        • Exception

          No, the First Amendment would be the exception, since too many liberals espouse that firearms are evil, because it allows them to ignore the fact that the evil is inherent in the populace, not in any inanimate object. They profess that the second amendment does not guarantee a right to anyone.

          Just as the conservatives have their war on drugs, this viewpoint allows the politicians to ignore the real issues and guarantees they will never succeed in eliminating the issues, so they tell their constituents that the solution must be more resources poured down the same ineffective hole.
  • The Rigths are listed in the constitution

    One the right to free speech, freedom of religion, the vote, to not be Unreasonably searched, right to trail by jury, the right to assemble, to petition the government for redress of grievance, the right to pursue happiest. the right to run for any office, the right to not to be discremation against or because of religion or lack there of, the right of a free press( even if a pain) need I go on
  • ...she'll be right...

    Maybe they realise that it is futile to ask. Even the US system has circumvented a few of their laws and also being a bit reticent in explanations.

    It would be good to know a few more facts, sure but why. What they and other are doing is generally thought to be for a good reason. We have to trust our governments to do the job properly in the name of the people. The alternative is currently happening in many middle eastern countries and that is not a happy thought any more.

    Another thing due to the numbers involved they are hard pressed to single you out and give you a hard time unless for a good reason. Think about it. There are about seven billion people on the planet. About three billion have the internet and in the zone of influence about one billion. Now if each one of those folks make a few connection a day via email, twitter, facebook and many other ways then that is some workload for the authorities to work through. As you know it is initially done by computer programs to flesh out the persons of interest and then maybe humans will read the results. Can you see that someone worried about your life when his role is much greater. Yes there are more important things going on in the world than what is in your little bubble. Even the revelations from snowden and assange did not focus on the individual.

    Maybe a few Don Chipps in our governments would be an advantage but alas those kind of people are few and far between these days and if they do pop-up then immediately squashed by mainstream. Maybe a few of you journalists would like to put your hand up for a go at politics and set matters straight.