Shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull has said the public needs clarity on the scope of programs such as PRISM – an initiative by the US National Security Agency that allegedly sources data from a number of major tech firms including Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft.
“[It’s] not good enough for politicians simply to say we have to compromise security with privacy,” Turnbull said on ABC Radio on Wednesday.
“I mean Obama said that, and that’s fine, it’s a good insight – it’s worth saying – but it’s not enough because what we need to know is, what are the rules of the road? We are entitled to know that.
“And if material that we thought was private and could only be accessed by the state with probable cause is not private vis-à-vis the state, then that is something we are entitled to be told. And we are entitled and ought to have a proper debate about.”
Turnbull said he had met with the US ambassador, Jeff Bleich, "to try to get a clearer understanding of exactly what we’re talking about here".
PRISM was exposed by Edward Snowden, an employee of an NSA contractor, who released information about the spying program to the media. Snowden is now reportedly in hiding in Hong Kong.
Apple, Facebook and Microsoft have issued carefully worded denials about their participation in the program, whose NSA codename may be unknown to the companies. Disclosure of certain government agencies' requests for data deemed relevant to national security is against the law in the US under some circumstances.
Google’s CEO Larry Page and chief legal officer David Drummond have also flatly denied the company’s participation on the program in a blog post and said they had not heard of the program until recently.
In Australia, the alleged scope of PRISM has reignited discussion over data sovereignty and offshore hosting. Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has refused to confirm or deny whether US intelligence agencies have shared information gleaned from PRISM with authorities in Australia.
“All Australians would be concerned at the potential for their privacy to be invaded through what other countries are doing,” Dreyfus told a Queensland Media Club lunch on Tuesday, according to AAP.
“What we wish for, and what certainly the government is going to assist on, is that there be a rule of law and proper checks and balances everywhere in the world and that is what the battle is going to be about.”
Turnbull said while the US is Australia’s “best ally”, there are legitimate concerns about such surveillance programs.
“[If data is] being recorded or surveilled or examined in some way without the consent of either the owner of the data or the hosting company – be it Apple, Microsoft, or whatever – surely that is a matter of some concern,” Turnbull said.
“Now there are people who are cynics [about this], and it’s hard not to be cynical.”
In response to the PRISM revelations, the Greens have revealed plans to legislate for more transparency around data collected by Australian government agencies.
The party plans to introduce the Telecommunications Interception and Access Act (Get A Warrant) Bill 2013 into parliament next week to ensure law enforcement agencies only access citizens’ private data under a warrant.
Recent data revealed 293,501 requests without warrants were made for telecommunications data in 2011-12 by Australian law enforcement agencies.
“Many people are appalled at the current extent of surveillance in the wake of the PRISM scandal,” the Greens' communications spokesperson, Scott Ludlam, said.
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