It’s Time To Stop The Government’s Data Retention Laws

A digital call to action from Greens Senator Scott Ludlam.

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I’d have never made it as a journalist. The tyranny of a blinking cursor on a blank white page. Rendering legibility out of complex, high-dimensional events, while deadlines drum their fingers on the desk impatiently. Day, after day, after day.

Then there’s that whole fourth estate thing: peering under the paving slabs of power and documenting the creepy-crawlies as they scuttle away from the light.

Of all the paving slabs you’d want to look under, the blank, formless expanse of the one labelled ‘national security’ is the one you’d probably want to be the most careful with. Some of those creepy-crawlies have a venomous bite, and they don’t take kindly to this kind of paving-slab-disturbing behaviour. Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste and his colleagues just got sentenced to seven years in a hole in the ground in Cairo for publishing things deemed “damaging to national security”, to cite one recent example. Thank goodness that could never happen here, right?


What Are The New Anti-Terrorism Laws, And Why?

We need to talk about what happened in Parliament over the last ten days. After nearly two years gestating in obscure committee rooms, draft national security laws — laws that gift ASIO enhanced surveillance powers, and make reporting on certain types of intelligence operations illegal — were rammed through the Parliament. By stunning coincidence, this happened in the same week as newspaper mastheads were screaming terror, Australian air force jets and special ops soldiers were arriving on the ground at a staging point in the United Arab Emirates, and men with assault weapons stood watch outside Parliament house.

Here’s what happened while attention was diverted elsewhere: Parliament kind of banned national security reporting in Australia. Anyone who discloses a new category of investigation (“Special Intelligence Operations,” for those playing at home) faces prosecution and jail time. We know why these provisions are there, because as the Government tells us, “the necessity for increasing the penalty has become apparent through recent domestic and international incidents involving the unauthorised disclosure of security intelligence-related information.”

Two words: Edward Snowden. The Australian Government’s response to media disclosures of vast, indiscriminate, creepy and downright illegal mass surveillance by the US NSA is to legislate to prevent any such reporting ever happening here. Not just increasing penalties for disclosing the information, but throwing the book at anyone who reports or reposts the existence of an SIO.

Remember how we wiretapped the President of Indonesia’s wife? Remember how on ASIO’s advice we deported US peace activist Scott Parkin for saying mean things about Halliburton? Or the time ASIS kinked the East Timorese cabinet rooms during commercial negotiations over gas concessions? If you do remember these things, chances are you heard about them first from a *journalist*. If you were sufficiently interested or outraged, you might have shared these things on the *internet*.

Maybe there will be a wave of prosecutions to keep people in line. Just as likely, stories like this will be legalled out of existence before they get anywhere near print or broadcast.

What Even Is A Computer, Also?

Then there’s the small matter of George Brandis’ new definition of computer. It’s about as coherent as his catastrophically ignorant definition of metadata:

For the purposes of a computer access warrant, a ‘computer’ is now defined to include “a network or networks”. If you’ve got specialised legal training you may have spotted the slender loophole here: the definition of ‘computer’ has been amended to mean ‘the whole fucking internet’.

These warrants allow ASIO to monitor traffic, but also take up residence, copy and paste files, install malware, cover their tracks, and basically do whatever they feel like, on any device anywhere, whether or not you’re suspected of any crime. But it’s okay: rigorous oversight will be provided… By George Brandis.

You’re welcome.

An Epic Parliamentary Fail

At 9:30 last Thursday night, the bill cleared the Senate 12 votes to 44. We needed 38 votes to make it stop, and we didn’t have them. 38. Keep that number in mind — we’ll be needing it again in a moment.

The Greens, with Senators Xenophon, Leyonhjelm and Madigan, put up a good fight, but let’s call this what it is: an epic parliamentary fail. Our amendments were defeated by the Australian Labor Party voting with George Brandis, over and over again. Our voices weren’t loud enough. They did exactly the same thing in the House of Representatives a few days later.

So that brings us to here and now. George Brandis’ excruciating caught-in-the-headlights spectacle a few months ago was just the warm-up act for a bill to lock in Mandatory Data Retention: forcing phone and internet companies to trap and store everything your device does for two years, so that hundreds of agencies can access huge new warehouses full of your data. Every device, for every person, in real time; from young children to High Court judges, just on the off-chance you might be a person of interest at some time in the future. Same number of needles, hidden in a vastly larger haystack.

What can you tell about a person’s life with this information? Well, everything. You may not have heard of Malte Spitz, but metadata certainly had. He subpoenaed his phone company for six months of his own metadata, and threw it down on a Google map. Watch him swarm around the landscape in fast forward, making calls, catching trains, living his life. That mobile phones can function as intensely fine-grained tracking devices is one reason why former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden once cheerfully observed, “we kill people based on metadata.”

In late October, Brandis is proposing to introduce a bill for mandatory data retention. This will create vast new data pools so that everyone from ASIO and the police to Centrelink, local councils, the RSPCA and the Victorian Taxi Inspectorate can rewind your life, map your entire social network, and follow you around under a digital microscope, all in the name of National Security. It’s going to cost a fortune – estimates start at $600 million and up, and you’ll pay either in the form of taxes or increased data charges.

Enough. I call bullshit, in comic sans capslock.


It is long past time we fought back against the invasion of our internet by digital illiterates whose recklessness is only exceeded by their mediocrity.

It All Comes Down To The ALP

We have until the week of October 27 to persuade George Brandis to crawl back under his paving slab and leave the internet the hell alone. That means – you guessed it – finding 38 senate votes to block his bill.

The Greens have been fighting against this arch stupidity for years: that’s ten votes. Some of the cross-benchers will be good on this stuff, so we can account for maybe another three. Means we’re short 25.

That happens to be *exactly* the number of Labor Party Senators who were curled up in a small-target foetal position last Thursday night when the ASIO bill was rammed through. It’s up to us all to prevent a repeat of that humiliating performance.

Labor, we’re not going to let you sit this one out. In order to stand up to people like Tony Abbott and George Brandis you’re going to have to, you know, stand up. Be an opposition. Vote against stuff occasionally even though the Daily Telegraph will spit hate at you and whiz around on the floor like a dying blowfly.

Internet, we need help here. We need your creative, anarchic, no-fucks-given spirit expressed in a thousand gifs, memes, blogues and vines; hell, even LinkedIn if you want. Help us get to 38 votes. For the next few weeks, #StopDataRetention needs to be ubiquitous, the equivalent of a Distributed Denial of Mediocrity attack targeted to wake the ALP out of their terrified stupor. We can do this.

Gamers, I’m looking at you. Artists, musicians, hackers, geeks, this is your internet. Defend it. If you can get your crazy meme on TV, into the paper or onto the streets, so much the better. It is time for a spell of sustained jimmy-rustling the likes of which we haven’t seen since we killed the internet filter.

Find us 38 votes. We don’t have long. I tell you true, without your immediate intervention, I fear the politicians are about to screw our precious internet sideways. Don’t let them.

A Call-Out From Scott Ludlam

The creator of the most widely seen, most effective, unavoidably kick-ass meme will be flown at gargantuan expense to Parliament House Canberra, by me, and in the Parliament House dining room which will be weird but also kind of fun. That’s how serious I am about this. We will share the best ones on this Tumblr, but remember the objective: to be unavoidably, delightfully in the faces of those ALP senators who have only a few weeks to decide if they will stand with George Brandis or with all of us.

Scott Ludlam is an Australian Greens Senator for Western Australia and spokesperson for Communications. He has worked on campaigns to actually get on with building the NBN and keeping it in public ownership, and has helped see off several attempts to filter the internet and introduce mandatory data retention. Mostly he wishes the Government would leave the internet alone.

Feature image via nolifebeforecoffee on a Flickr Creative Commons licence. This image was resized.