surveillance

Browsing the Australian Coalition’s History on Digital Rights

Global trends point towards increased surveillance and censorship. Australia is no different.

Katherine Barnett
By Katherine Barnett

The Australian election produced an unexpected result. Defying predictions, Labor failed to knock the Liberal-National coalition out of the government.

With a disheartened-left reeling, many are focusing on how the result will affect key electoral concerns such as climate change and the economy. However, the coalitions third term will have wide-reaching impacts on the digital world too, and put Australians’ rights and freedoms under threat.

The Liberal-National coalition has already infringed upon Australians’ digital rights, introducing damaging pieces of legislation like the Assistance & Access Act, which disregards user privacy in favour of increased government accessibility to communications.

Now, with a third term in the bag, Morrison’s coalition government is set to put Australians digital freedoms, privacy and security at further risk.

Digital Rights Watch scorecard

Issues surrounding digital rights have featured increasingly in mainstream media in light of data breaches, privacy scandals and increasing censorship across the globe. Despite this, many users are still unaware of how policy relating to the digital world can put their security and privacy at risk.

Before the election, advocacy group Digital Rights Watch attempted to rectify this by producing a digital rights scorecard for each main political party. Each party was scored on their stance towards privacy, encryption, copyright and ethical data use.

Worryingly, the Liberals drew with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party at the bottom of the table, demonstrating how their policies above all others put digital rights at risk.

Given the results of the election, it’s important to understand this score and how a third term of the coalition will affect Australians’ digital rights.

Previous missteps

The Liberal-National coalition has already demonstrated a clear disregard for user privacy and security since forming in 2013.

Mandatory data retention has been in effect since 2017. This enables intelligence agencies and government body’s to access metadata on the grounds of national security.

Metadata is the technical data behind a communication such as its form (SMS, email etc.), the time and date it took place on, its duration, destination and where it was sent from.

Under law, all metadata must be stored for at least two years. Though metadata does not reveal the contents of a message, it provides anyone who can access it with significant insights into a user’s private life.

Last year, the coalition ramped up privacy violations by rushing through the Assistance and Access Act. This allows government authorities access to the encrypted communications of anyone suspected of criminal activity, no warrant required.

It also means Australian tech companies are having to build backdoors into encryption, making devices vulnerable to exploitation by cybercriminals. Unsurprisingly, it has caused outrage among these companies who are worried it will drive consumers to avoid Australian products.

My Health Record was also introduced last year, with Australians being given until October to opt-out of their key health information being stored in an online database.

By storing this data online, My Health Record leaves Australians’ sensitive healthcare data vulnerable to hackers. This data can then be used to commit potentially devastating crimes, such as identity theft.

Even without being hacked, personal data will be accessible to numerous staff by default, with no access-logging system keeping tabs on who has accessed it and when. These lax rules around accessibility give little regard for personal privacy and security.

Given these previous missteps around Australians privacy and security, it should be no surprise that the Liberals fell at the bottom of the Digital Rights Watch scorecard. The coalitions introduction of My Health Record, and the rushing through of ill-thought out laws, has left Australians’ private data open to access by not just government authorities, but any bad actor with the right tools and intent.

What to expect from a third term

The track-record of the Liberal-National party does little to suggest that digital rights improvements will be coming anytime soon. Their obvious anti-encryption and data-collecting stance violates user privacy, anonymity and security, implying that other careless laws may be on the horizon.

Top10VPN spoke to Lizzie O’Shea from Digital Rights Watch about the election result, who said that of the many pieces of legislation relating to digital technology and human rights online already passed by the coalition, many are direct violations of Australia’s human rights obligations under International law.

They have consequently “hampered free speech, taken away privacy rights and introduced instability and distrust in digital systems in both the private and government sectors.”

O’Shea told us that we can expect Morrison’s coalition government to continue this tradition of passing legislation that puts consumer privacy significantly at risk.

This seems especially likely when placed in the context of an international move towards increased government interference with our online lives. Methods of limiting or monitoring online activity for the sake of national security are being increasingly adopted by both totalitarian and democratic countries alike.

For example, site-blocking was recently introduced in New Zealand to counteract the circulation of violent content in the wake of the Christchurch shooting. It has prompted discussions on whether permanent site and content-blocking should be introduced, leading some to worry about how it could be used for government censorship.

With the expansion of China’s Belt & Road initiative furthering the exportation of advanced surveillance tech, and the recognised involvement of online platforms in political and terrorist acts, it seems likely that more digital legislation may be introduced to help protect national security.

Inevitably, this will further impact on Australian’s privacy, data security and internet freedoms.

How to protect your digital rights

Through the passing of hastily drawn up legislation and the introduction of databases such as My Health Record, the Liberal-National coalition have thrown Australians’ digital rights under the bus. Their third term is set to continue a trend of sacrificing consumer privacy for the sake of ‘national security’ and government accessibility.

Thankfully, there are things Australians’ can do to help protect their data. Digital Rights Watch recommends Australians install a VPN, opt out of My Health Record and prioritise using apps and services that offer end-to-end encryption.

As well as taking immediate protective measures to stay secure, Australians should join civil society organisations such as Digital Rights Watch in campaigning for the repeal of laws that violate human rights standards.

Conclusion

The shock of a Labor loss and continuation of a Liberal-National coalition has left Australians with a lot to consider. While issues such as climate change and the economy remain an understandable focus of political discussion, digital rights are also of vital importance and should be recognised as such.

By taking extra measures to safeguard personal data, and campaigning against future laws that put users’ privacy at risk, Australians can work against the negligent actions of the Liberal-National coalition to help protect their digital rights.

This article was originally published on Crikey.