Privatising intelligence gathering

PRISM, declining privacy, and lost accountability of government security agencies is the real cost of intelligence privatisation and security outsourcing.
Written by Tim Lohman, Contributor

The increasing privatisation of intelligence gathering in the US has prompted a call for a national debate on the extent, cost, and consequences of Australia's own security and intelligence outsourcing.

The call, made by Dr Troy Whitford, an associate investigator with the Australian Research Council's Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security, a politics and history lecturer at Charles Sturt University lecturer, comes ahead of the Privatisation of Intelligence symposium being held in Canberra this week.

According to Dr Whitford, who is also a director at private investigations and research firm Civintel, CIA reports and intelligence inquiries has established that as much as 51 percent of the intelligence gathering in the US is now carried out by non-government contractors.

This fact, coupled with a lack of information from the Australian government and national security agencies on the extent of their use of private firms, and the leaking of information about the NSA's PRISM program by security contractor Edward Snowden, means that an open and transparent assessment of the pros and cons of intelligence gathering privatisation is now needed.

"[The privatisation of intelligence] is an increasing phenomenon in the US and is having some very surprising results," Dr Whitford said.

"[One] problem is in monitoring what these private companies are doing — making sure that the information the agency gives back is secure and you aren't going to have rogue people who take that information somewhere else.

"Leaks and breaches of confidence are an issue, and so too are the relationships between private contractors and government agencies."

By way of example, Dr Whitford said US private intelligence providers often have close ties to the US government, which throws into question both the quality and independence of intelligence information received.

"Some would argue that the information they provide is what the CIA and other government departments want to be put out," he said. "They are supposed to be independent intelligence providers, but they are really doing the bidding of government."

Dr Whitford claimed that in Australia, security agency ASIO is believed to have contracted a private intelligence company in Queensland to monitor environmental and other issue-motivated groups. However, the full extent of Australia's intelligence outsourcing and activities is unknown.

"No one is asking the question [of the extent of intelligence outsourcing] and the reports of ASIO and other agencies are not all that very forthcoming about their contracting," he said. "It is something that our own Senate and law enforcement committees should be digging around in and asking."

The extent to which the Australian government and private intelligence firms — as well as technology firms and internet service providers — have collaborated with the US on the PRISM and other intelligence programs also needs to be uncovered and publicly debated, Dr Whitford said.

"We were beginning to have the conversation here about what the extent of PRISM was in Australia ... but it has been brushed over with the change in prime ministers, and now the election," he said. "We need to pick that discussion back up and find out what our communication companies and our own government are doing in terms of monitoring our own internet behaviour."

Despite the lack of transparency on Australia's involvement in PRISM, the national conversation on a Greens proposal requiring government agencies to obtain a warrant before gaining access to telecommunications customer metadata has become vocal.

Earlier this month, the Commonwealth Ombudsman said it lacked the resources to support the proposal, while in late July, Former Supreme Court judge David Levine QC, said that the proposal would be a disproportionate response to protecting individual privacy. The Victorian Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC) added that the proposal would raise costs and delay investigations.

The question of whether Australia's privacy and freedom of information rules are in need of reform has also been recently raised via a Queensland government review of its laws.

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