December 2, 2013
An Australian spy agency was ready to share data on its citizens with its partners from the so-called 5-Eyes alliance, according to a freshly-released document from the files leaked by Edward Snowden.
The secret document, reported by the Guardian Australia, features notes from an intelligence conference hosted by Britain in 2008, where representatives from the spy agencies of the 5-Eyes group members (Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the US) discussed how far it was appropriate to go in sharing surveillance information.
According to the notes, Australia’s Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) – which has since changed its name to the Australian Signals Directorate – was ready to go further than some of its partners.
“DSD can share bulk, unselected, unminimized metadata as long as there is no intent to target an Australian national,” the leaked notes read. “Unintentional collection is not viewed as a significant issue.”
That means Australia saw nothing wrong in sending over to its foreign allies metadata, including that of its own citizens. Metadata is just the information on when and where a certain phone call was made or an email was sent. For more profound inquiries on its citizens, Australian intelligence officials said they would require a warrant.
“However, if a ‘pattern of life’ search detects an Australian then there would be a need to contact DSD and ask them to obtain a ministerial warrant to continue,” the conference notes read. A ‘pattern of life’ search means a more detailed one.
The Australian attitude is in contrast to that of Canada, which at the same conference said it would send its bulk metadata to its foreign partners, only after the information on its own citizens is ‘minimized’, meaning removed from the files to protect the privacy of the Canadian citizens.
The participants of the intelligence agencies meeting also discussed if some particular types of information – “medical, legal, religious” – should be restricted from sharing as sensitive. The issue was left for each of the alliance members to decide on their own.
“It was agreed that the conference should not seek to set any automatic limitations, but any such difficult cases would have to be considered by ‘owning’ agency on a case-by-case basis,” the document reads.
The record of the 2008 5-Eyes meeting is described as a draft document and does not shed light on whether things spoken about there led to any final decisions.
Still, human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC believes the information presented in the leaked conference report is enough to believe the Australian spy agency could go beyond the realm of law.
“This would be a breach of sections 8 and 12 of the Intelligence Services Act 2001. Snowden’s evidence that that DSD ignored this law (or was ignorant of its correct interpretation) raises the prospect that law-abiding Australians have had their personal data wrongfully collected and transmitted to bodies which may use it to damage them,” Robertson commented in a column written for the Guardian.
The revelation sparked huge controversy inside Australia. The Greens have demanded explanations from the government.
“If you inadvertently gather metadata on an Australian citizen you’re not meant to share it, you’re meant to destroy it,” Greens Senator Scott Ludlum said as cited by the ABC. “Our call again on the Australian Government is to come clean. Stop waiting for these disclosures to be made one by one in the Australian press and the world press. Front-foot it.”
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has spoken in defense of Australia’s intelligence activities, seeing nothing illegal in it.
“If there’s any evidence that we have acted inappropriately, that we have done something illegally, produce the evidence and the matter will be dealt with,” Abbott told reporters on Monday. “But there’s nothing that’s in the public arena, there’s nothing that I am privately aware of, to suggest that any Australian law has been broken.”
Australian Attorney-General George Brandis has described Edward Snowden as a “traitor” and questioned the reliability of the leaked conference notes.
“I note that the document on which the report is based is unverified,” Brandis said as cited by the Australian. “I also note that the unverified document is described as a draft document which, contrary to the reports, does not report or record any activity by any Australian intelligence agency.”
The release of the British conference notes comes as the Australian leadership is still feeling the effects of the November Snowden revelations, which showed that Australian spies attempted to tap the phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife. The leak sparked a diplomatic row between the two countries.