Will Attorney-General Brandis be the spooks' breakwater?

The tide of public opinion is turning, but the digital spooks are still surviving the shower of criticism. How long can they last?
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

In the weeks since I wondered whether Australia's digital spooks could escape an NSA-level backlash, and even whether privacy fears could burst the dot-com bubble, Australians have been continuing to discover more about what's going on — and getting more concerned about what they're discovering.

Last Monday, we learned that the Australian government was briefed on PRISM, the NSA's program to collect user data from major internet services such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and Facebook, two months before Edward Snowden leaked the details.

That's curious timing. PRISM has supposedly been operating since 2007. Had the US been keeping one of its closest allies in the dark until then? Had the spooks been keeping the politicians in the dark? I'm sure that never, ever happens, right? No, it looks to me like someone figured out that Snowden's documents were about to drop, and the attorney-general had better get his PR ducks in a row.

On Tuesday, we learned that Australians are increasingly worried about online privacy risks.

A longitudinal study by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) showed, amongst other meaty findings — the report is well worth reading — that we're increasingly aware of federal privacy laws (82 percent, versus 69 percent in 2007), and increasingly concerned that we'll become a victim of ID fraud or theft in the next year (69 percent, versus 60 percent in 2007).

The Mark Zuckerbergs of this world, who claim that personal privacy is somehow a dead concept for the digital natives, are in for a surprise. Young Australians (aged 18 to 24) are the age bracket most concerned about personal information and online services, with 60 percent of them mentioning this as a privacy risk.

I wonder how long Facebook will be able to get away with doing things like opening up everyone's timeline to search, unless the searcher has previously been explicitly blocked, and characterising it as "finishing the removal of an old search setting". It's got plenty of form for this sort of sleight of hand, and it's not what I'd characterise as honest communication — and I'm being polite, because the words I'd prefer to use are not suitable for these pages, even in Australia.

Also last week, we learned more about Australians' dislike of electronic snooping.

Polling released by Essential Media (PDF) showed that far more Australians oppose America's secret collection of communications information than support it (45 percent versus 24 percent); far more think that companies providing services to Australia should reveal what information they give to foreign governments (75 percent versus 16 percent); and fewer believe that governments are justified in collecting information on all people, regardless of whether there is any suspicion of wrongdoing (42 percent versus 45 percent, but given that N=1,023 for this poll, that's within the standard margin of error of roughly plus or minus three percentage points).

We've previously learned how, following all of the NSA and PRISM news, almost half of Australians (49 percent) are now more concerned about privacy, and almost half (49 percent again) are less trusting that companies are keeping their personal data securely.

And only a few weeks ago, the Washington-based Foreign Policy magazine — hardly a hotbed of left-wing radicalism — referred to NSA chief general Keith Alexander as "the cowboy of the NSA".

All of this is looking like a bit of a trend, isn't it?

In August, I described this all as 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".

It looks to me like that groundswell is still rising. So far, we've seen only a small part of Snowden's trove of documents. Investigative journalists are only beginning to probe Australia's role.

But will this groundswell continue to rise?

Even if it does, will it be enough to cause real change?

Australia has a new government. Our new attorney-general, Senator George Brandis, has yet to say anything significant on these issues, but here's what I wrote about him in June, when he was still in opposition.

A scan through everything Brandis has said in the Senate this year reveals little more than debating tactics and routine attacks on the government that parrot the day's approved Coalition talking points. Following allegations in May that the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) had been hacked, Brandis had nothing to tell a security conference beyond a boilerplate cybercrime-is-scary squawk and another round of predictable political point scoring.

I'm assuming that if Brandis has anything intelligent or insightful to say about Australia's digital future, he'd have said it by now.

So how might Brandis play this, now that he's attorney-general?

On the one hand, Brandis will be keen to keep his party's conservative supporters happy, and the conservative side of politics tends to support being "tough" on national security and law enforcement issues.

Indeed, the Essential research shows a clear split of opinion along party-political lines, with opposition to digital surveillance strongest amongst Labor and Greens supporters. Brandis may well just mutter "national security" a few more times — because that's all that he seems to have done so far — and that's about it.

On the other hand, the government may want to bolster its majority, and bring a few more swinging Labor and Greens voters into the Liberal-National coalition fold. If so, there might be wisdom in at least opening up the question of surveillance, tricky though it is, just to shut it back down.

But on the third hand of this mutant 21st-century beast, what if this really is a generational change in political views? Would Brandis recognise when we've truly reached such a watershed moment, and move for substantial reform? Would any of us?

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