Australian government to assess PRISM impact

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr has said that the Australian government will assess the impact that the secret PRISM program has had on the private data of Australians held by US tech giants.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

While cybersecurity is a "matter of real and present concern" for Australia, Foreign Minister Bob Carr has said that he doesn't think Australians should be concerned about PRISM, the secret National Security Agency (NSA) program to collect user data from some of the largest tech companies in the world.

Late last week, slides leaked from an NSA presentation, showing that the NSA claims to be able to collect, in real time, user data from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple, and PalTalk.

The companies have since come out and strongly denied voluntarily participating in providing "direct access" to user data, and US President Barack Obama said on Friday that the program is not targeting people in the US, meaning that people living outside of the US could have their data collected under this program.

"This does not apply to US citizens, and it does not apply to people living in the United States," he said.

When questioned on the program Meet the Press on Sunday, Carr said that cybersecurity is high on the government's list of concerns, but said that he does not think that the PRISM program would be a concern for Australians.

Despite the apparent lack of concern, the foreign minister said that the government will look to see what impact the program would have on the privacy of Australian data hosted by the companies alleged to be involved with the program.

"I'd need to get advice on that. I don't want to make a snap judgment," he said. "I think this controversy has a long way to go in America, and it will give us an opportunity to thoroughly examine that.

"We'll examine carefully any implications in what has emerged for the security and privacy of Australians."

For the last 43 years, Australia and the US have had a joint intelligence facility based in Pine Gap outside of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, part of which is used by the NSA. The foreign minister did not respond directly to a question about whether the Pine Gap facility is being used as part of the PRISM program.

On Friday, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that he raised the matter with US government representatives in Australia.

"I think Australians have always understood data housed on US servers is subject to US laws such as the Patriot Act, but the Guardian story about the so-called PRISM program suggests there is extensive surveillance and interception of foreign citizens' data without a court order, and indeed without the knowledge of the internet companies themselves," he said.

Turnbull said that the PRISM program could have very significant implications for the cloud industry.

"The vast majority of the cloud service providers are US companies. These companies have, with US government support and endorsement, been promoting their services globally, and have sought to allay concerns that data hosted by them would have less privacy protection than it would in Australia," he said.

"[The] reports elevate those concerns to an even higher level, especially since it has been alleged that foreign-owned data hosted by US internet companies has lesser protection than data belonging to US citizens."

Greens communications spokesperson Scott Ludlam said on Friday that the Australian government should disclose whether it has access to private information from the PRISM program.

"Australians use these services to the point of ubiquity. Does the Australian government believe it is appropriate that the US intelligence agencies appear to be engaged in warrantless real-time surveillance of the entire online population? Does the Australian intelligence community have access to this material? And is this the reason the Attorney-General's Department have been so insistent that Australian ISPs institute a two-year data-retention regime?"

Ludlam said he will put these questions to the Attorney-General's Department.

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