Australians left naked before PRISM.

Well, that’s all there is to it. No worries, Australia. According to Foreign Minister Bob Carr, the US government’s outsourced intelligence community going through your virtual sock drawer and taking a good look while you’re standing at the urinal is nothing to be concerned about.

I'm from the government, I'm here to help.

I’m from the government, I’ll only look a little bit.

While Bob Carr is toeing the line, instructing us that there’s nothing going on, the head of the NSA has been excusing the PRISM program in the US by claiming that it’s used mostly on foreigners. That would be us.

Malcolm Turnbull was taking his cues from The Hollowmen issuing a statement that “Australians would be disturbed.” Mal was part of the government that introduced Australia’s anti-terror laws that enable massive data collection locally without any warrants or public scrutiny. Scott Ludlam, the Greens Senator, is introducing a bill next week to try to correct some of it, but that won’t have any effect on the NSA’s data collection.

In Europe, where a few of the leaders apparently still have half a spine between them, there are calls for laws to prevent companies enabling this kind of no-holds-barred collection of people’s personal information.

Politicians in Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Romania are among those to have called for an investigation into PRISM at a European level. German privacy chief Peter Schaar has demanded that the U.S. government “provide clarity” regarding what he described as “monstrous allegations of total monitoring of various telecommunications and Internet services.” And Schaar has been backed up by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who plans to raise the issue when she meets in Berlin with President Obama next week.


That Slate article quotes James Clapper confirming that the program can be used to spy on foreign government agents. Our own security agents are being spied on. By a nation that is supposedly an ally. Well, an ally enough to dump cheap citrus on us when they need to, even when our own farmers are going broke. Very neighbourly of them. Of course they have our best interests at heart. They relied on us to back them up in the war over WMDs.

From The Conversation, Sean Rintel gives us a list of 9 reasons why this massive intrusion is not okay. Sean observes that the entire argument “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” is wallpaper words, a con, basically, to guilt trip you into accepting whatever the government and their private contractors wish. The implication that putting your pants on before you leave the house is the same as covering up a terrorist plot is ridiculous.

In the wake of former CIA employee Edward Snowden’s revelations of the PRISM NSA mass surveillance, people are once again asking why the general public should care if they’ve got nothing to hide.

“Nothing to hide” hides a lot behind an absolutist gloss. It puts the focus on the individual rather than on the real problem of a society-wide loss of data control at many levels.

Dana Boyd has written an essay about agencies presuming the guilt of the people they’re paid to watch.

The frameworks of “innocent until proven guilty” and “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” are really really important to civil liberties, even if they mean that some criminals get away. These frameworks put the burden on the powerful entity to prove that someone has done something wrong. Because it’s actually pretty easy to generate suspicion, even when someone is wholly innocent. And still, even with this protection, innocent people are sentenced to jail and even given the death penalty. Because if someone has a vested interest in you being guilty, it’s often viable to paint that portrait, especially if you have enough data. Just watch as the media pulls up random quotes from social media sites whenever someone hits the news to frame them in a particular light.

Both of those articles are recommended to read.

The Age has dutifully printed the official talking points by producing an account of Australia being a valued partner in the US surveillance network, which includes keeping North Korea under scrutiny, and helped us get that seat on the UN security council. Where our vote is going to be completely independent as a result. As in the case of “nothing to hide” this completely distorts the issue.

What I’d like to ask is, who is doing what with all this information that we’re supposed to be so trustingly handing over?

There are millions of private contractors operating now, in intelligence and military arenas.

Private contractors. The testosterone fuelling those beards could power an entire Afghani village.

Private contractors. The testosterone fuelling those beards could power an entire Afghani village.

Over the years, the government has outsourced huge chunks of its operations wholesale to private contractors like Booz Allen, particularly in the realm of intelligence gathering. And it’s costing Washington untold billions every year.

Nobody knows for sure how many contractors the government pays because, well, the government doesn’t keep track. But New York University Professor Paul Light has estimated that in 2005, they made up more than half the federal workforce, totaling some 7.6 million employees. Since then, the tally has no doubt grown. And whatever their precise numbers may be, the bottom line is that contractors are now enmeshed in virtually every federal function, from catering to research to spying.

Aside from the sheer numbers, these functions are now effectively outside the control and scrutiny of the citizens they’re supposed to be protecting. This is partly because of the nature of the contracts and partly the influence of corporations because of their size and legal status. Over the past few decades there’s been increasing moves from government by and for the citizens, to government by and for the interests of multinational corporations together with international deregulation. It’s been described as neo-feudal.

There is continuing conflict in many areas because of the revolving door between private enterprise and government. Clarence Thomas famously failed to recuse himself in a Supreme Court case involving Monsanto, for which he had worked. This week it was announced that Ken Salazar from the Interior Ministry, that is prosecuting BP for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, will be taking up a new position with the firm that is defending BP in the matter. But it’s okay. He promises not to be named on any documents pertaining to the case to protect the firm’s integrity.

Found 'em!

Found ’em!

In addition to the confusion between private enterprise and the government is that increasing deregulation. We’ve discussed previously that companies are required by law to put profit ahead of everything else, including the community and environment. If you’re unfamiliar with that, have a watch of the documentary The Corporation. Not only are the costs of business externalised for someone else to pay for, there are substantial protections in place for large companies. Where laws do exist to prosecute or revoke a charter, they’re simply not enforced. HSBC was found to be laundering money for drug and arms traders and was not prosecuted. Instead, given a fine that amounted to about five week’s worth of profit. “The banks’ laundering transactions were so brazen that the NSA probably could have spotted them from space.” Wall Street firms that were given billions in loans did not repay them and have continued illegally foreclosing on homes that they don’t even have the mortgage paperwork for. In the UK police officers were found to be complicit in the Murdoch media phone tapping scandal. One paper was closed and the rest of the monopoly has continued, internationally, without repercussion.

Without getting too side tracked by the massive scale of corporate protection and corruption, what we’re considering is the provision of security and intelligence in this climate. George Orwell and Philip K Dick were fond of describing dystopian states where citizens were powerless and under constant surveillance but it was Aldous Huxley who hinted at the importance of corporations in the paradigm. His book Brave New World depicted the worship of a capital T. After the T model Ford and the beginning of the production line.

But wait. There’s more. In addition to its dubious provenance, big data doesn’t work.

Politicians need to be seen as actively protecting public safety and the easiest way is to add surveillance, reduce privacy and expand the security state. What they are not willing to discuss is the impossibility of detecting and deterring all attacks. The suggestion is that more security measures translate to more public safety. The fact is that even the most repressive nations with the most abusive security services, places such as China and Iran, have not been able to stop terrorist acts.

More noise gives us more opportunity to make it look like you're up to something.

More noise gives us more opportunity to make it look like you’re up to something.

Let’s just leave aside the issue of the war on terror for the moment, since our governments are collectively encouraging the growth of terrorism through wedge politics, occupations and drone bombing. If there was a genuine intention to stop terrorist activities from harming citizens, there’d be an end to fuelling the circumstances that create it.

It’s not as if the Australian Government has all our security neatly under wraps and kept according to a process subject to adequate scrutiny. People building Government networks and handling citizens’ private information here are frequently contractors. The free market system we were sold demanded it. But contractors aren’t any more reliable than any other human being.

A federal government contractor that was paid more than $1 million to deliver e-security alert services to Australians has lost 8000 subscribers’ personal information in the postal system.

AusCERT, which was paid $1,199,484.52 by the federal government to run between April 29 2008 and April 29 2012*, lost subscribers’ data after using Australia Post to send it on a DVD to the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) on April 11 when its contract to run the alerts service expired.

We have then gathering of information without warrants by government agencies and corporations based here and overseas. The US government has no requirement to protect the privacy of Australian citizens and there’s no system in place to ensure that breaches are addressed. There are also significant questions about the corporations themselves, how they operate and under what oversight, if any. There are blatant illegalities involving multinationals and very little scope or willingness to address that. There have been demonstrated issues with the calibre of security information being provided back to Australia by this and other systems. On top of all this is the problematic nature of the whole war on terror to start with.

Australian citizens were never asked if we wish to turn Australia into Iran. We didn’t elect representatives on the basis of introducing Stasi like information gathering techniques. Now our information is being gathered by departments the government refuses to talk about, vulnerable to interception by private contractors for a foreign government and our websites are being blocked or taken down to the tune of 250,000 by mistake.

While there are no doubt plenty of people who’d like us to take our soma and just put up with it, we are citizens of a supposedly free country. The Australian government is going to need to come up with something more than “nothing to worry about” in response to this. Scott Ludlam’s proposal to rein in the Howard era warrantless investigation and detention is a start. But without public discussion and some real protections for the privacy of Australian citizens, we’re left with government agencies and private contractors in other countries peering through our blinds at night.


About Syburi

Witch, bitch, creatrix; hippie, dreamer, gardener. Lover of books, music, rescue animals, piss and vinegar.
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