When the first clumsy pages of a PowerPoint presentation were leaked by Edward Snowden, detailing online spying by the United States’ National Security Agency, some commentators thought the revelations might cow governments into reconsidering their impositions into the digital lives of their citizens.
Decency has a strange capacity for optimism in the face of outrage. Instead, the response of the Five Eyes countries has been a lean towards legalising the more dubious of those practices Snowden’s leak exposed.
In Australia this week, it was announced intelligence agencies would be thrown another $630 million over the next four years. ASIO’s questioning and detention powers will be extended. Passports will be more easily suspended. A new crime will be established forcing people who visit areas the government deems terrorism hotspots to prove the innocence of their trip.
But this is only the beginning. The government also intends to have stored and accessible huge tracts of data about what its citizens do online. They don’t know quite what this will entail yet. If they do, they are not saying, and are looking especially silly in not doing so. They do not know if it will apply to social media, for instance. They do not really know what “metadata” actually is.
Speaking to David Speers on Sky News, Attorney-General George Brandis behaved as if his briefing notes had been written by Clarke and Dawe.
Speers: “Well, the prime minister today said, ‘It’s not what you’re doing on the internet, it’s the sites you’re visiting.’ So will it be the sites that you’re visiting?”
George Brandis: “Well, well, it... it wouldn’t extend, for example, to web surfing. So, what people are viewing on the internet, um, is not going to be caught.”
Speers: “So it’s not the sites you’re visiting.”
Brandis: “Well... um... what people are viewing on the internet when they web surf is not going to be caught. What will be caught is the... um... is the... is the, um... the web address they communicate to.”
Speers: “Okay, so it’s only the... I’m sorry... the web address? If I go to an internet site, that will be recorded and available?”
Brandis: “The web address... um... is... is part of the metadata.”
Speers: “The website.”
Brandis: “Well, the web address. The electronic address of the website.”
For the sake of brevity, let’s skip forward.
Speers: “So it does tell you the website.”
Brandis: “Well... well... it tells you the address of the website.”
Speers: “That’s the website, isn’t it? It tells you what website you’ve been to.”
Brandis: “Well, when... when you visit a website you... you know, people browse from one thing to the next and... and... that browsing history won’t be retained or... or... or... there won’t be any capacity to access that.”
Speers: “Excuse my confusion here, but if you are retaining the web address, you are retaining the website, aren’t you?”
Speers is correct. And Brandis is especially cagey, likely because he knows what an overreach this is.
Since the beginning of the War on Terror, all sorts of civil liberties have been eaten up by legislation ostensibly designed to foil terrorist plots. Spy agencies are always lobbying for greater powers and finally they have a government seemingly willing to grant them – powers not simply for tracing suspects, but ones that would allow for snooping on all citizens.
Brandis cited the use of metadata in tracking Jill Meagher’s killer and the busting of paedophile rings in Britain as evidence of the good in this. He is correct to say both relied on metadata. More importantly, both relied on warrants.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 9, 2014 as "Address unknown ". Subscribe here.