Greens to lift lid on IT providers' Govt cooperation

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Greens to lift lid on IT providers' Govt cooperation

Challenges surveillance state.

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The Greens plan to force IT providers and telcos to publicly disclose any agreements they have with domestic or foreign governments for customer content or metadata handover.

Communications spokesperson, Senator Scott Ludlam, yesterday outlined a five-pronged plan to halt "surveillance overreach".

The plan includes a requirement for service providers to disclose who can get at end customer data, and also a commitment to "bring security agencies within the ambit of the FOI [freedom of information] Act".

The transparency rules for service providers come a bit over a month after it was revealed that Telstra stores the content of customers' communications on behalf of the US Government and security agencies.

Fairfax newspapers also report today that intelligence agencies including the Australian Signals Directorate tap into internet traffic that runs on the SEA-ME-WE3 cable

Ludlam told iTnews that he believed Australia was within its jurisdictional rights to demand disclosure of surveillance agreements between governments, foreign intelligence agencies and service providers that operate on Australian soil.

"In these sorts of jurisdictional questions, we've got to choose which law overrides the other," Ludlam said.

"Something needs to prevail. I don't think there would be any legal reason why we couldn't do it."

The disclosure policy is expected to impact providers with Australian data centre facilities, as well as those that sell offshore-hosted services to Australian users.

Ludlam hoped those with facilities not directly under Australia's legal jurisdiction might be pressured into making disclosures by competitors that won business due to their transparency.

"What I think should happen is [transparency and disclosure] will give a boost to Australian cloud hosting providers if they are really explicit and upfront that nobody else is messing around with the data [they host]," Ludlam said.

"If [a business] can't be directly regulated by Australia, I think it's something where competitive pressures might actually play a role."

Ludlam conceded that some companies may not be able to disclose arrangements with foreign intelligence agencies under the terms of their respective agreements.

He saw Google's Transparency Report and a similar initiative by Facebook as potential models for disclosing data requests made by governments and agencies, though he noted that some recent transparency had only come after damaging leaks by whistleblower Edward Snowden that shamed large internet firms on their cooperation with surveillance schemes.

"If a whistleblower hadn't put his life at risk ... [some of] those disclosure statements wouldn't be made," Ludlam said.

"We wouldn't have a clue what is being done in our name."

Ludlam said it would not be possible to tackle the issue of data disclosure to governments alone.

"We're going to need to work with colleagues in the United States, Canada, the UK and NZ," he said.

"My concern is that this debate is a lot more advanced in the United States than it is here. There are tangible and actually quite powerful law reform proposals on the table from the Left and Right of the political spectrum [in the US], and yet in Australia the two old political parties are completely dormant pretending that nothing has happened."

Natsec FOI immunity to be narrowed

In a move likely to inflame relations with Australia's security agencies, the Greens will also push reforms that will cull exemptions for those agencies from Freedom of Information (FOI).

Ludlam described the last batch of FOI reforms that passed through the parliament as a "huge mistake".

"We put amendments up at the time to try to prevent the government from quarantining national security and intelligence agencies from the FOI regime," he said, noting that even the United States and Britain subjected their intelligence agencies to FOI regimes.

"There's absolutely no excuse why you shouldn't be able to lodge freedom of information requests for basic information about the running of the agency."

The Greens also plan to narrow the scope of public interest immunity grounds relating to national security, to stop them being used to block large numbers of FOI requests.

FOI requests can be blocked on public interest immunity grounds that include cabinet in-confidence, commercial in-confidence, national security, and legal privilege.

"I think in many cases they're abused but that's not really the question here," Ludlam said.

"We're not proposing that they be lifted. I'm proposing the way that national security immunity defences are argued have to be narrowed.

"At the moment we've got [the] Attorney-General and the Shadow Attorney-General waving their hands at us saying, 'National security' as though that excuses all these abuses that have occurred in the United States and elsewhere."

Read on for the remainder of the Greens' policy platform, and how the party plans to achieve its anti-surveillance goals.

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