The Australian Government has provided the strongest indication yet that it receives information from the data-collection PRISM program run by the United States Government.
The program, used to obtain data on individuals using the services of nine technology companies with servers based in the US, came to light earlier this month. While it has led to debate across the globe, the Australian Government has repeatedly declined to comment on the program, citing “national security concerns.”
The most verbose government response thus far came from Foreign Minister Bob Carr on Meet the Press on Sunday, when he signalled an investigation into what impact the program had on the privacy of Australian citizens with data held on US servers.
He said Australians should not be concerned about the data-collection program.
Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple have been listed as participants of the program.
Greens senator Scott Ludlam, a vocal advocate for privacy, last week called on the Government to “immediately” reveal whether it had access to data from PRISM.
“Does the Australian Government believe it is appropriate that the US intelligence agencies appear to be engaged in warrantless real-time surveillance of the entire online population?” he said in a blog post.
“Does the Australian intelligence community have access to this material? And is this the reason the Attorney General’s Department have been so insistent that Australian ISPs institute a two-year data retention regime?”
In Senate question time today, Ludlam asked Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig, standing in for the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, whether Australian agencies were receiving “huge volumes of information through the warrantless real-time surveillance program known as PRISM”.
Ludwig said while the Government didn’t comment on intelligence matters, it did work closely with allies on intelligence matters to protect the interest and security of Australians.
“In terms of intelligence activities and our relationship with close allies, they are about protection from threats such as terrorism .. and to achieve this of course we work closely with allies on intelligence matters, and we are confident they understand and respect our legal framework,” Ludwig said.
“Consistent with long-standing practice, I’m not going to go into detail of such arrangements, since to do so would potentially expose important capabilities.”
Ludlam criticised the response as “suitably evasive and chilling”, and asked whether the Government had any concerns over the scope of the project and whether they had been communicated to the US.
“The relevant Australian agencies are discussing with US counterparts the effect the NSA disclosure may have to the Australian Government. There is no basis to claim Australian agencies get access to information from the US that would not otherwise be legal from Australia,” Ludwig said.
“The activities are all conducted in accordance with Australian law, and the Australian Government does work closely with our allies on intelligence matters.”
The Australian Government reportedly built a secret communications facility this year in Canberra to handle the influx of intelligence data coming from the US.
According to Fairfax reports, the facility, reportedly named the HMAS Harman after a nearby suburb, was due for completion in March this year at a cost of $135 million.
It houses the Defence Signals Directorate, the local equivalent of the US’ National Security Agency (NSA), which runs the PRISM program.
Local law enforcement agencies are currently able to seek non-content telecommunications data, or metadata, without requiring a warrant, thanks to the introduction of amendments involving metadata to the Telecommunications Interception Act in 2007.
Australian law enforcement agencies made 293,501 authorisations for access to metadata in the 2011-12 financial year, according to the Attorney-General's Telecommunications (Interception and Access) report.
In addition, 3764 telecommunications interception warrants were lodged, with nine refused.
This compares to 243,631 metadata authorisations and 3488 intercept warrants in the prior year.