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The year privacy flew out the window

The year privacy flew out the window

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Our personal privacy took a battering in the past year from our own government and the America’s NSA. What have Australians lost, and how do we get it back?

The year privacy flew out the window

By Bill Rowlings, CEO of Civil Liberties Australia

In 2013 the world’s privacy flew out the window.

It will take 2014 to think about how much privacy we’ve lost and how we can get it back again.

Then it will probably take all of 2015 to try to put some bounds around what government – big brother – is allowed to capture and hold of what we might consider our own, personal information: records, files, images, intelligence, contacts and connections…data in general.

Firstly, though, why is privacy important? It is probably your most tangible liberty or right the one freedom you enjoy – and use – every day. When you close your purse, or wallet, or your front door, or when you pull the curtains, or close the garage door, you are enjoying your right to privacy.   When you send a private letter, or have a private conversation on the phone, you have an entirely reasonable expectation that no-one else will open the letter, or earwig on the conversation.

What we’ve found out in the past 12 months is that the Australian government will breech your privacy, and does do so, constantly, without your knowing. It teams with other governments to maintain constant surveillance on Australians and on citizens throughout the world. As well, governments and private companies regularly abuse and lose your information, through maliciousness, incompetence or just plain human error.

To regain our reasonable privacy expectations, the starting point has to be what’s lost? The article below from the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the USA does a good job of pointing out what revelations opened our eyes and ears in the past year from an American viewpoint. But it doesn’t explain where Australians stand.

So here’s a quick rundown, extrapolating from what is below in the article, but also from other sources revealed during the past 12 months:

  • the email and instant messages, the tweets and face-offs, the online games exchanges plus the associated two-way contact details of all Australians are captured either by US surveillance, or by Australian surveillance acting as sub-contractor to the Americans;
  • that means the government knows – or can access – who your friends are, your medical records, the food and drink you like (and the quantities), and the entertainment you choose;
  • all your Australian communications are monitored in real-time for “explosive” words, like ‘bomb’, ‘terrorist’, and the like, using sophisticated scanning software: information is also stored for later analysis and checking;
  • particular attention is paid to international traffic: satellites, microwave links and underseas cable connections are all being tapped by Australia and by the four other members of the ‘5 Eyes’ secret surveillance society (USA, UK, Canada and NZ);
  • the Australian military and spook services monitor all communications – phones, email, private conversations, etc – of friendly and unfriendly countries, and Australia uses that information to shape government policy and for commercial reasons;
  • companies who maintain close ties with governments can receive advantage and preference in the normal commercial world;
  • your ISP is basically an unpaid arm of government security: it collects and holds details of your private correspondence, including web sites you access and what you do on them;
  • because of this type of data collection, the government – that includes police and security services but also agencies like Centrelink, the Tax Office and some private sector bodies as well, like the RSCPCA – possesses a vast array of information gained by secret surveillance which it could (and in some cases does) use against you; and
  • unless reined in, this type of surveillance in and by and for Australia will only expand exponentially.

There is a difficult challenge for groups like Civil Liberties Australia, and for individual Australians who care, over the next couple of years: how can we claw back personal privacy from governments and their agencies?

We elected them to look after our interests, but they have interpreted our interests as looking after their concerns. They are consumed by the fear of living: the ‘not on my watch’ syndrome.

We have given governments power and money, and they have taken both and made us less powerful and more surveilled…by them.

It will only get worse unless we tell them, our governments:

  • Cease;
  • Legislate an agreed compact with your citizens; and
  • Abide by the new law.

 From Electronic Frontiers Foundation:

26 December 2013 | By Cindy Cohn and Trevor Timm

While prior to 2013 the NSA’s public line was that it was forbidden from spying on Americans in America, but with the Snowden revelations (and help from a wide range of journalists and technologists that helped explain them) the NSA was forced to admit that it secretly expanded its mandate from limited surveillance of specific foreign intelligence targets to a massive “collect it all” strategy where its goal is to ensure that no communication in the world is ever truly private or secure.

With this, EFF’s long running lawsuit against key parts of NSA spying came to life, we launched another, and both the U.S. and the entire world finally began discussing whether we want to live in a world of general warrants and always-on surveillance or whether we want to regain our basic privacy, rule of law, and freedom of association.

Here’s just some of what we’ve learned, or had confirmed, in 2013:

  • The NSA collects virtually every phone call record in the United States—that’s who you call, who calls you, when, for how long, and sometimes where. (Guardian)
  • The NSA “is harvesting hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal e-mail and instant messaging accounts around the world, many of them belonging to Americans.” (Washington Post)
  • The NSA is collecting “communications on fiber cables and infrastructure as data flows past,” as part of what it calls “upstream” collection, including content and metadata of emails, web activity, chats, social networks, and everything else. (Washington Post)
  • The NSA “is searching the contents of vast amounts of Americans’ e-mail and text communications into and out of the country.” (New York Times)
  • The NSA “is gathering nearly 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world.” (Washington Post)
  • NSA “is winning its long-running secret war on encryption, using supercomputers, technical trickery, court orders and behind-the-scenes persuasion to undermine the major tools protecting the privacy of everyday communications in the Internet age.” (New York Times and Pro Publica)
  • NS “has secretly broken into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centers around the world” and has “positioned itself to collect at will from hundreds of millions of user accounts, many of them belonging to Americans.” (Washington Post)
  • NSA has “has been gathering records of online sexual activity and evidence of visits to pornographic websites as part of a proposed plan to harm the reputations of those whom the agency believes are radicalizing others through incendiary speeches.” (Washington Post)
  • NSA “is secretly piggybacking on the tools that enable Internet advertisers to track consumers, using “cookies” and location data to pinpoint targets for government hacking and to bolster surveillance.” (Washington Post)
  • NSA “officers on several occasions have channeled their agency’s enormous eavesdropping power to spy on love interests.” (Wall Street Journal)
  • NSA and GHCQ (the UK intelligence organisation) spied on online games, including World or Warcraft and Second Life. (ProPublica)

This article is part of the US Electronic Frontier Foundation’s 2013 Year in Review series; read other articles about the US and world fight for digital rights in 2013.

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