Future Tense

Australia on the Verge of Permitting Alarmingly Broad Internet Surveillance 

Tony Abbott, Australian Prime Minister and big fan of surveillance.

Cole Bennetts/Getty Images

On Thursday, the Australian Senate passed a bill that would increase the powers of domestic spy agency ASIO, giving it the ability to monitor all of the Australian Internet with a single warrant. It could also send anyone who “recklessly” discloses information that “relates to a special intelligence operation” to jail for up to 10 years. (Any operation can be considered special.) The bill is expected to pass the House, where it will be up for a vote on Tuesday at the earliest.

The bill has been met with harsh criticism from many, including attorneys and academics. But the government is presenting it as a shift toward security. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott warned citizens that “for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift. There may be more restrictions on some, so that there can be more protection for others.” The legislation comes in response to recent terror threats.

The law will, if passed, dramatically increase the government’s powers of surveillance, but despite Abbott’s reference to a “shift,” it’s not necessarily inconsistent with existing Australian policy. Ryan Calo, assistant professor of the University Washington School of Law and author of a Brookings report on why the United States needs a federal robotics commission, pointed to Australia as a country with a more deliberate, and more consistently permissive, policy toward drones, surveillance drones included.

Permissiveness toward drones, of course, is not equivalent to a law that allows a network of computers (better known as the Internet) to be searched with a single warrant. But Australia’s surveillance history suggests that the new legislation isn’t necessarily the “shift” for the sake of security that the Australian government suggests. It’s a more dramatic allowance of mass surveillance—and in keeping with previously pursued policy.