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Australia opens Pandora's box with surveillance bill

By Xu Ke | | Updated: 2019-04-25 16:22
An exhibition stand of Huawei at the PT Expo China in Beijing, Sept 26, 2018. [Photo/ VCG]

At the end of 2018, Australia became another "surveillance state" with the passing of the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment Bill or the Assistance and Access Bill 2018.

What's in the bill?

The bill establishes a technical assistance mechanism between law enforcement departments, intelligence agencies and private institutions. In short, it authorizes Australia's national law enforcement to issue mandatory "Technical Assistance Notices", "Technical Capability Notices" and "Computer Access and Assistance Orders" to all communication providers. Upon receiving the notification and instruction, the communication provider must undertake a number of activities, for example, decrypting specific communications, installing specific software on the network, modifying or replacing services, providing assistance in accessing facilities, and providing source code, third-party provider profiles, network device encryption schemes, and more.

The power of the bill is not limited to within Australia. In fact, any organizations or individuals providing communication services to Australia are subject to its jurisdiction, whether its "company, server, manufacturing location" is located in Australia or not. More shockingly, the law imposes an extraordinary duty of confidentiality. The private sector, which assists law enforcement, cannot disclose the details of the instructions it receives, or even the instructions themselves. Otherwise, the violators will be put into prison for up to five years.

In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu warned: "Constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go." The bill, with its secrecy, broad jurisdiction and powers that can set up "backdoors" of systems, has caused widespread fear among Australians, with many thinking the law has opened "Pandora's box" of "surveillance states".

The history of 'surveillance states'

The origins of modern surveillance states can be traced back to the US government' s military occupation of the Philippines in the 1890s. Christopher J. Coyne, a professor at George Mason University in the United States said in the book Tyranny Comes Home that under the leadership of Ralph Van Deman, the father of US military intelligence, the American occupier established an advanced monitoring agency at the time to suppress rebels and dissidents.

In May 1917, Vanderman took charge of the Military Intelligence Section (MIS), a similar surveillance facility in the United States, and which would eventually evolve into the US National Security Agency (NSA). In 1955, the United States further launched an intelligence gathering and analysis network consisting of five English-speaking countries: the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. This is the so-called "five-eye alliance." As a result, the five countries can globally intercept and monitor telephone exchanges, faxes, mails and other information transmitted by satellite communications.

After 9/11, the US surveillance became more intensified. Shortly after the attack, the US government introduced the Patriot Act, the Accuracy Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which formed a comprehensive intelligence surveillance network. According to a survey by Privacy International in 2007 covering 47 countries, the United States ranked first in the monitoring index. But the United States didn't stop there. In 2013, Edward Snowden, a technical analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), exposed the Prism program. In this seven-year top-secret electronic surveillance, monitored individuals include non-Americans who use related company services, or any US citizen who communicates with foreigners, including email, video and voice conversations, and social network details, and so on, can be described as large-scale indiscriminate monitoring. Surveillance states were finally formed.

As for the bill, it is largely a "one-time trial" of the "five-eye alliance." It smartly uses Australia's lack of "benefits" of the "Bill of Rights" and uses Australia as a breakthrough to force large global technology companies to yield. It's no wonder that Sharon Bradford Franklin, head of monitoring and cybersecurity policy at New America, said the bill was in fact the backdoor of the encrypted backdoor for the United States.

Curbing the spread of 'surveillance states'

The emergence of surveillance states is rooted in the irrational panic of the people against foreign countries and the use of such panic by the government. These sentiments and circumstances have been reflected in the unprovoked attacks on the Chinese government and Chinese companies over the past few years.

In August 2018, the Australian government banned Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturers such as Huawei and ZTE from providing 5G technology and products, as well as the use of Chinese telecommunications equipment in domestic broadband networks. Behind this decision is vague "national security". For example, the West has repeatedly accused China of its "Intelligence Law", especially the particular Article 7 of the law, under which Chinese enterprises will cooperate with the Chinese government in carrying out acts of theft.

However, the Intelligence Law does not require organizations and citizens to unconditionally "support, assist and cooperate" with "national intelligence". On the contrary, the so-called "support, assistance and cooperation" must be carried out "in accordance with the provisions of other laws".

In other words, the Intelligence Law does not create new obligations or responsibilities in addition to existing laws. The claim that Chinese companies are forced to allow national security services access to all data on their networks or devices is completely illusory.

Needless to say, with the rapid development of science and technology, the use of communications technology to carry out major crimes and terrorist activities emerge in endlessly, but this does not mean that the threat of other countries can be infinitely exaggerated, let alone expand their own network monitoring power.

To bring cyber-surveillance and government decisions based on national security back to rationality and transparency and to prevent illegal access to information and safeguard international cooperation is a consensus among countries. It is the only way to prevent Australia from sliding into the abyss of a surveillance state, thereby preventing countries from falling into misunderstanding and hostility.

Xu Ke, executive Director of Center for Digital economy and legal Innovation, University of International Business and Economics

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.


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