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Questioning the Attorney General about surveillance overreach

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Scott Ludlam 3 Dec 2013

 

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (14:05): My question is to our Attorney-General, Senator Brandis. Given the US National Security Agency has proven that it cannot control its own data internally—and I quote the NSA's inspector general as noting:

… wilful violations of NSA's authorities have been found—

what has the Australian government actually done to ensure that information held by Australia's national security and intelligence agencies is secure and that bulk collection of information about Australian citizens has not occurred?

 

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandDeputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, Vice-President of the Executive Council, Minister for Arts and Attorney-General) (14:06): I thank Senator Ludlam for his question. I know this is an area of great interest to Senator Ludlam, so Senator Ludlam will be aware that the Australian intelligence agencies operate under a regime of parliamentary oversight comprising the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security and the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. They operate under strict statutory obligations under the ASIO Act and the Intelligence Services Act, and they act under strict executive government oversight—both ministerial oversight and oversight by the independent agency of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security.

The government is confident that the Australian national security agencies discharge their statutory obligations and that they act in the interests of Australia and of Australians. The senator will understand that it is not the practice of Australian governments, and this has been the case from time immemorial, to comment on particular security matters.

 

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (14:07): That makes you, Senator Brandis, one of the only people left on earth not commenting on security matters. Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Will the government now commence a comprehensive revision of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act as called for by the Australian Law Reform Commission and as recommended by the May 2013 report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, of which you are indeed a member?

 

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandDeputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, Vice-President of the Executive Council, Minister for Arts and Attorney-General) (14:07): In fact—through you, Mr President—Senator Ludlam, I am no longer a member of that committee. However, you were right in saying that throughout the last parliament I was a member of that committee and, as you would be aware, that committee conducted very extensive hearings on the powers of the national security agencies and one of the issues that was the subject of those hearings was the telecommunications interception and access regime. As the honourable senator would be aware, that report is currently before the government for consideration, as indeed is the ALRC report to which he refers. The government is considering those recommendations and, in the event that the government chooses to adopt some, any or all of them, then that will be a decision indicated in due course.

 

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (14:08): Mr President, I ask a final supplementary question and we will see if we do any better with this one. Will the Attorney-General assist the Prime Minister to understand what metadata actually is, given he stated yesterday it was simply billing data when in fact metadata reveals mobile and landline phone records, a person's precise location, the source and destination of electronic mail, their entire social network and their web history? Could the Attorney please give an undertaking to remind the Prime Minister of what this term actually means?

 

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandDeputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, Vice-President of the Executive Council, Minister for Arts and Attorney-General) (14:09): I think the honourable senator, if I may say so, assumes too much, because the term 'metadata' is not a term of art; it is a term that means different things to different people. I can tell the honourable senator that, during the parliamentary inquiry to which I referred in my answer to his first supplementary question, a number of witnesses gave different definitions of what they understood to be metadata. I myself, on the basis of having been informed by the evidence of those several witnesses during the last parliament, thought that the Prime Minister's description of metadata as essentially billing details was a perfectly accurate, shorthand description of what is a contestable concept.

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