Mass surveillance in Australia

Mass surveillance in Australia occurs through a variety of means affecting telephone, internet and other communications networks, financial systems, vehicle and transit networks, international travel, access to government services and other parts of society.



Australia requires that pre-paid mobile telecommunications providers verify the identity of individuals before providing service.[1][2]


According to Greens' Senator Scott Ludlam, Australian law enforcement agencies were issued 243,631 warrants to obtain telecommunications logs in the period from July 2010 to June 2011, which vastly overshadowed the 3500-odd legal intercepts of communications.[3]

We've already taken some pretty dangerous steps in this country towards the surveillance state, and not that many of us are either interested or aware that it's going on, including people like me who should know better... Our friend and ally the United States is transitioning quite rapidly into an authoritarian state.
Greens' Senator Scott Ludlam, 20 January 2012[3]

In 2013 it was reported that under Australian law state, territory and federal law enforcement authorities can access a variety of 'non-content' data from internet companies like Telstra, Optus and Google with authorisation by senior police officers or government officials rather than judicial warrant, and that "During criminal and revenue investigations in 2011-12, government agencies accessed private data and internet logs more than 300,000 times."[4]

Google's transparency report shows a consistent trend of growth in requests by Australian authorities for private information, constantly rising approximately 20% year-on-year. The most recent published volume for the period ending December 2013 indicates a volume of around four individual requests per calendar day.[5]

Telstra's transparency report for the period 1 July - 31 December 2013 does not include requests by national security agencies, only police and other agencies. Nevertheless, in the six-month period 40,644 requests were made, 36,053 for "Telstra customer information, carriage service records and pre-warrant checks" (name, address, date of birth, service number, call/SMS/internet records. Call records include called party, date, time and duration. Internet information includes date, time and duration of internet sessions and email logs from Telstra-administered addresses[6]), 2,871 for "Life threatening situations and Triple Zero emergency calls", 270 for "Court orders", 1450 for "Warrants for interception or access to stored communications" (real time access): an average of around 222 requests per calendar day.[7]

Cover page of the first version of the secret UKUSA Agreement, which was disclosed to the public in 2011, and was the basis for the modern Five Eyes international surveillance alliance.
Aerial view of Pine Gap, one of Australia's major spy facilities.
Aerial view of HMAS Harman, another of Australia's major spy facilities.

In 2013 more than 500 authors including five Nobel prize winners and Australian identities Frank Moorhouse, John Coetzee, Helen Garner, Geraldine Brooks and David Malouf signed a global petition to protest mass surveillance[8] after the whistleblower Edward Snowden's global surveillance disclosures informed the world, including Australians, that they are being monitored by the National Security Agency's XKeyscore system and its boundless informant. Snowden had further revealed that Australian government intelligence agencies, specifically the Australian Signals Directorate, also have access to the system as part of the international Five Eyes surveillance alliance.[9]

In August 2014 it was reported[10] that law-enforcement agencies had been accessing Australians' web browsing histories via internet providers such as Telstra without a warrant (Optus confirmed that they cooperate with law enforcement, and Vodafone did not return a request for comment). The revelations came less than a week after government attempts to increase their surveillance powers through new legislation allowing offensive computer hacking by government intelligence agencies, and mere months after outrage surrounding the government's offer to share personal information about citizens with Five Eyes intelligence partners.[11]

As of August 2014, no warrant is required for organisations to access the so-called 'metadata' information of private parties. This is information regarding "calls and emails sent and received, the location of a phone, internet browsing activity. There is no access to the content of the communication, just how, to or from whom, when and where." Under current law many organisations other than federal, state and territory police[12] and security agencies such as ASIO[12] can get access to this information, including "any agency that collects government revenue",[3] for example the RSPCA,[12][3][13] the Australian Crime Commission,[14] the Australian Securities and Investments Commission[12][14] (though reportedly temporarily removed from the list),[12] the Australian Tax Office,[12][14][15] Centrelink,[15] Medicare,[12][14] Australia Post,[12][14][15] the Australian Fisheries Management Authority,[3] the Victorian Taxi Services Commission,[3] the Victorian Transport Accident Commission,[3] WorkSafe Victoria,[12] local councils[13][12] and foreign law enforcement agencies.[13]

In the 2013-2014 financial year there were over half a million disclosures of metadata to agencies.[15]

The Australian Communications and Media Authority provides instructions for internet service providers and other telecommunications providers about their law enforcement, national security and interception obligations.

2014 proposals

A range of proposals are under discussion that affect surveillance of the population by government in conjunction with commercial service providers.

Hacking powers

The proposals seek to give the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation the right to hack in to computers and modify them.[16]

Single computer warrant to become umbrella surveillance

The proposals seek to give the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation the power to spy on whole computer networks under a single computer-access warrant.[16]

Spying on citizens abroad

The proposals seek to give the Australian Secret Intelligence Service the power to collect intelligence on Australian citizens overseas.[16]

Law against media and whistleblowing

Section 35P of the proposals seeks to create a new criminal offence, with a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment for revealing information about so-called 'special intelligence operations'. There are no exceptions listed, and the law would apply to journalists even if they were unaware that they were revealing information about such an operation. Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus called the measure "an unprecedented overreach".[16]

Mandatory data retention

Mandatory data retention for two years of data relating to the internet and telecommunications activity of all Australians is currently under discussion.[13][16]

I must record my very grave misgivings about the proposal; it seems to be heading in precisely the wrong direction.
Malcolm Turnbull, government Communications Minister.[17]

On Tuesday, August 5, government Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull complained about "waking up to newspaper headlines concerning the government's controversial plan for mandatory data retention", stating the government "risked unnecessary difficulties by pushing ahead with the data retention regime without fully understanding the details". In 2012, Turnbull had opposed mandatory retention.[17]

On Friday, August 8, Australia's federal privacy commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, stated he felt it remained "unclear" exactly what data was to be retained, and that "there is the potential for the retention of large amounts of data to contain or reveal a great deal of information about people's private lives and that this data could be considered 'personal information' under the Privacy Act".[17]

The government's proposal on data retention raises a number of important issues and so it is important that there is an opportunity for public consultation and debate on these proposals once the detail is available.
Timothy Pilgrim, Australia's federal privacy commissioner, Friday, August 8th, 2014.[17]

Later in the month, the head of Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) appealed for access to private citizens' data on the grounds that commercial entities may already be collecting it.[18]

For the life of me, I cannot understand why it is somehow correct for all of your privacy to be invaded for a commercial purpose but I am not allowed to do it for the purpose of saving your life.
David Irvine, ASIO chief, 22 August 2014

On February 19, 2015 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Radio National program Download This Show broadcast an interview with a former police employee who had worked extensively with metadata, on condition of anonymity. The former employee was quoted as feeling the proposed system was open for abuse and may one day be used against Australians who download music and TV shows.[19][20]

The Australian people are being sleep walked into a system the attorney general cannot even articulate [...] Right now it would be so easy for me to slip my ex-girlfriend's number in the current process under any investigation [...] No one would pick it up because there is no detail.
Anonymous former police employee who worked extensively with metadata[19][20]

On February 22, 2015 Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner Tim Morris made the following claims appealing to blind trust from the public.[21]

Your chances that your data will be viewed by law enforcement is low [...] Those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear.
Tim Morris, Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner, 22 February 2015[21]

The quote is a clear instance of the nothing to hide argument, which subtly implies that those who disagree are criminals.

In 2015 the issue of costs became more heavily discussed in the media with figures such as 1% of all national telecommunications revenue annually or "two battleships" per year used.[22]

Prominent parties concerned about the proposals include:[20][15]



General depiction of northern Australia's Jindalee Operational Radar Network, used to track airborne and seaborne vessels across a vast area.

Australia and the European Union have signed in international agreement regarding the advanced sharing of traveler passenger name records for international travelers. These records typically include significantly more information than merely the name of the passenger.

In addition to passenger information and standard radar, Australia uses the Jindalee Operational Radar Network to detect individual boats and planes in the north and west of the country.

It not only provides a 24-hour military surveillance of the northern and western approaches to Australia, but also serves a civilian purpose in assisting in detecting illegal entry, smuggling and unlicensed fishing. The system also assists in weather forecasting making it possible to produce wind and sea state maps from information provided by the network. These maps can give early warnings of cyclones and enable ships to save fuel by avoiding rough weather.
Jindalee Operational Radar Network, DSTO website


Vehicles are tracked by a range of systems including Automatic Number Plate Recognition, video and sensor-based traffic surveillance networks, cellular telephone tracking (if a device is known to be in the vehicle) and automated toll networks. The SCATS system, owned by the New South Wales government and initially deployed in Sydney, is a widely used traffic surveillance system in the country that is known under various other names in Adelaide (ACTS), Canberra (CATSS), Melbourne (SCRAM), the Northern Territory (DARTS) and Perth (PCATS).

Mass transit


In December 2014, certain universities such as Sydney University delayed collaboration with the new Opal card system scheduled to fully replace existing, anonymous paper tickets on New South Wales mass transit, citing privacy concerns,[23] whereas Macquarie University, University of New South Wales and Australian Catholic University had already agreed to provide the "student data" to the card network. Data is made available to other NSW government departments and law enforcement agencies.[24]Concerns about privacy have been repeatedly raised in the mainstream media, with commentators questioning the extent to which user data can be accessed by authorities.[25][26][27] According to the Opal Privacy Policy, data is made available to other NSW government departments and law enforcement agencies. On the 13th of March 2015 it was announced that Opal cards may be linked to commuter car park spaces, such that private road vehicle identities would become associated with individual mass transit use.[28]

Other states

The extent and frequency to which individual traveler data is released without a warrant remains poorly documented for the following systems:

This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of

This section outlines the main legal references for mass surveillance in Australia.


Under Australian law, the following acts are prominent federal law in the area of surveillance.

A separate body of state-level laws also exists.

International agreements

Australia is part of the Five Eyes international surveillance network, run by the United States National Security Agency and generally protected from public scrutiny citing 'national security' concerns. According to the Canberra Times and cited policymakers, one of the most prominent critics of these agreements was the Australian National University academic Des Ball, who died in October 2016.[29]

See also


  1. "Law enforcement (Telecommunications): Identity verification in relation to pre-paid mobile services". Australian Communications and Media Authority.
  2. "Telecomms & law enforcement: obligations". Australian Communications and Media Authority.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 "Aus becoming surveillance state: Ludlam". ZDNet. 20 January 2012.
  4. Nick O'Malley and Ben Grubb (7 June 2013). "Australians at risk in US electronic surveillance program". Sydney Morning Herald.
  5. "Google Transparency Report: Australia".
  6. Peter Micek and Matt Solomon (16 April 2014). "Australian Telco Telstra Releases First Transparency Report".
  7. "Telstra Transparency Report: 1 July - 31 December 2013" (PDF).
  8. "More than 500 authors sign global petition to protest mass surveillance". The Australian. 10 December 2013.
  9. Dorling, Philip (July 8, 2013). "Snowden Reveals Australia's Links to US Spy Web". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved August 2, 2013.
  10. Ben Grubb (20 August 2014). "Telstra found divulging web browsing histories to law-enforcement agencies without a warrant". Sydney Morning Herald.
  11. Aaron Gluck Thaler (15 August 2014). "Australia government pushing to expand surveillance, hacking powers". Privacy International.
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Ben Grubb (26 February 2015). "What George Brandis and Malcolm Turnbull can do to fix metadata muddle". Retrieved 26 February 2015.
  13. 1 2 3 4 Gillian Lord (25 July 2014). "Privacy fears as Australian surveillance laws are dragged into the digital era". The Guardian.
  14. 1 2 3 4 5 "Australian surveillance 'out of control': 20% increase in 1 year". Russia Today. 3 December 2012.
  15. 1 2 3 4 5 Ben Grubb (12 March 2015). "Dutch do a U-turn on metadata laws". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 13 March 2015.
  16. 1 2 3 4 5 "Citizens Not Suspects: Learn More".
  17. 1 2 3 4 James Massola and Ben Grubb (9 August 2014). "Data retention Hokey Pokey: Liberals caught in public embarrassment over privacy".
  18. Ben Grubb (22 August 2014). "Metadata ambiguity to be resolved by government data retention policy paper: sources". Sydney Morning Herald.
  19. 1 2 Marc Fennel (19 February 2015). "Metadata regime open to abuse: insider". Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Radio National program Download This Show.
  20. 1 2 3 Ben Grubb (21 February 2015). "Trust spies and police on metadata retention to fight terrorism and crime, Attorney-General George Brandis pleads". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 23 February 2015.
  21. 1 2 Lia Timson (22 February 2015). "Metadata retention: 'Those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear', says Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner Tim Morris". Sydney Morning Herald.
  22. Ben Grubb (2 March 2015). "Australians harass George Brandis as the true cost of metadata retention is revealed". Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  23. Pallavi Singhal. "Student Opal card privacy concerns limit university participation".
  24. "Opal Privacy Policy" (PDF).
  25. Riemer, Kai. "Privacy has taken a back seat amid the Opal debate". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 9 June 2014.
  26. "Sydney Opal card travel history can be accessed by police". 30 June 2014.
  27. "No warrants needed to access Opal card records". Sydney Morning Herald. 15 July 2014.
  28. Jacob Saulwick (13 March 2015). "Opal access? New car parks for Western Sydney stations could be restricted to rail commuters". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 14 March 2015.
  29. Daniel Flitton. "Des Ball: a rare influence on thinking about secrets and war".
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