A series of coordinated terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists across the United States on September 11, 2001, had far reaching implications beyond the immediate destruction and casualties they caused at the time. In the wake of these events, which highlighted the unpreparedness and naivety of modern Western civilisation to the threat of terrorism (Rudner 2007, p. 189), Australia joined forces from the United States and United Kingdom as part of the international ‘War on Terror’ (Crowley 2013, p. 12; Jackson, Jarvis, Gunning & Breen Smyth 2011, p. 223). The result of this was the prospect of extremist terrorism reaching Australian shores which has seen the national threat level remaining at high since 2014 (Battersby 2018, p. 66; Hocking 2003, p. 355). The legitimacy of this threat was reflected by sweeping changes made by the Australian government to over 60 separate terrorism laws (Battersby 2018, p. 66), affecting both national and international interests, specifically with regards to the structure of governmental departments and the role that they played in protecting national security.
The Australian Liberal government of the day, led by then Prime Minister John Howard, oversaw the beginning of Australia’s involvement in the War on Terror and shortly after commissioned the Transnational Terrorism White Paper which set out guidelines for widespread policy reform and the implementation of new government departments intended to bolster national security (Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade 2004, para. 2). In 2010 this paper was followed by a second in 2010, commissioned by the Rudd Labor government, and proposed further access to funding and resources to establish Australia as a world leader in counter-terrorism (Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet 2010, p.46). Subsequent recommendations from both of these documents have been followed through and enacted by political leaders on both sides of parliament and since September 11, 2001, more than $15 billion dollars has been invested into national security and counter-terrorism strategies through government agencies including Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Australian Securities and Investments Commission and the Australian Signals Directorate (Battersby 2018, p. 66; Michaelsen 2010, p. 24; Williams 2017).
The aim of this essay is to explore and discuss how Australia’s approach to terrorism has changed since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and subsequent war on terror, and to what extent these changes to security have impacted on Australian liberty. Specifically, drawing on theories from the critical school of terrorism studies, this essay will analyse Australia’s approach to terrorism and security, identifying significant changes made by the Australian government over the past 17 years which have been documented as being invasive of privacy and potentially violating individual freedoms. From this exploration and analysis this essay will contend that, while born from a place of legitimate concern regarding national security, mass surveillance and powers afforded to intelligence agencies by the Australian government are questionable, potentially unethical and more akin to the actions of an authoritarian state than a liberal democracy. Regardless of the severity of the impact of mass surveillance on the Australian public the fact that an impact is noticeable suggests that Australia’s approach to counter-terrorism infringes on citizens’ individual liberty.
Given the breadth of Australia’s frontline counter-terrorism forces, as briefly touched on thus far, this essay will narrow its scope by focusing primarily on the Australian Signals Directorate and the evolution of the role this agency has played in contemporary national security. While having been in existence since the Second World War the Australian Signals Directorate has grown to prominence in the digital age of cyber-terrorism and information technology with new found importance on Australia’s first line of defense (Australian Signals Directorate 2018a, para. 1). Throughout this period the Australian Signals Directorate has amalgamated with other agencies of similar function to streamline national security capabilities, working to develop a single, effective means of intercepting communications and any potential terrorist threats (Walsh 2016, p. 60). The most significant of these mergers came in 2018 when the Australian Signals Directorate absorbed the Australian Cyber Security Centre as part of the Intelligence Services Amendment Bill 2018 and was established as a statutory agency within the portfolio for Defense (Australian Signals Directorate 2018b, para. 2).
This rebranding and restructure has effectively granted full license to the Australian Signals Directorate to act on any issue pertaining to the collection and use of data as they deem necessary, as well as supplying them with the most skilled individuals under government employment to undertake such tasks. The evolution of the Australian Signals Directorate, and the need for cross branch co-operation and unification, has coincided directly with the evolution of digital technology, cyber-terrorism and the threat that such events pose to Australia as the nation becomes ever more technologically reliant (Erez 2018, para. 1-5; Galbraith 2018, para. 2). When combined with Australia’s relative strength in the Asia-Pacific region, the perceived effectiveness of the nation’s combined security services have seen Australia become active in regional cross border security as well.
The War on Terror has evolved significantly from the deployment of Australian military forces in the Middle East in 2001, with focus shifting between Middle Eastern nations, the rise and fall of organized terror organization Al-Qaeda and subsequent birth of the lone wolf style jihadist backed by the new threat of Islamic State (Walsh 2016, p. 61). This expansion has seen a rise in terror threat levels globally, and the added danger of insurgents returning from actively fighting with known terrorists to their place of origin (Reuters 2018, para. 1 ; Scott & Burgess 2018, para. 4). In an effort to combat this threat Australia has shown great interest in developing cross border information sharing protocols with allies and neighbours alike, with special focus being paid to the Asia-Pacific region by way of cooperation with the Association of South East Asian Nations, despite not being a member of this bloc. The intention of cross-border intelligence sharing is to create a united, global front by which to combat the threat of terrorism and work towards thwarting any potential terror attacks be they from returning insurgents or from homegrown threats (Scott & Burgess 2018, para. 8). This serves Australia and the ASEAN states two-fold as it allows for better preparedness in the face of terrorism as well as strengthening the nations key diplomatic alliances which lead to a more productive regional, and in turn global, community. The need for such practice is further exacerbated by the rapid evolution of technology and the deadly force with which it can now be used.
The dawn of the information age has seen the rapid evolution of digital technology, and the ease by which it has become accessible to the general public, and as a result new terror threats have emerged. Cyber-terrorism as a medium has evolved into one of the most legitimate threats to the Australian populace, despite assertions from the Australian Cyber Security Centre that the risk level is low, echoing a similar naivety to that of security agencies prior to the September 11 attacks themselves (Galbraith 2018, para. 9; Rudner 2007, p. 189). These threats are not isolated to Australia, with global expenditure on cyber security estimated to have topped $86.4 billion in 2017, increasing 7% from previous years (Gartner 2017, para. 1). This immediate global threat demonstrates not only the severity of the issue of cyber-terrorism but also legitimizes the previously cited cross border information sharing and control checks that make up part of the operation between Australia and the ASEAN member states, in an effort to deal with both domestic and international cyber-terrorism in the region (Reuters 2018, para. 3 ; Scott & Burgess 2018, para. 3; Wilson & Weber 2008, p. 128). This highlights the skilled ability of the Australian counter-terrorism forces, particularly that of the new Australian Signals Directorate, to operate in such circumstances. While attitudes towards issues of cyber-terrorism have slowly begun to rise to prominence they have been previously identified and the situation Australia currently finds itself in has been developed over a number of years.
Focusing on the risks to Australian national security the rapid, and constant evolution of this style of terrorism has seen the issue remain at the forefront of national politics throughout the period post-September 11 (Battersby 2018, p. 66; Walsh 2016, pp. 54-63). Both Liberal and Labor governments, despite traditional opposition to one another on key areas of national policy, have acted in ways that on the surface hold the security of the Australian people over the differences of the parties by enforcing similar recommendations and amendments on issues of terrorism and counter terrorism policy. This cross-party co-operation was demonstrated in the cultivation of the second White Paper by the Rudd Government which both upheld and expanded on the Howard governments previous iteration, albeit following unpublished internal reviews of Howard policy (Walsh 2016, pp. 57-58), bringing it further into line with contemporary issues, particularly those pertaining to the new technologies, thus ensuring that the Australian security agencies were operating to the benefit of the greater public.
In the years following the Rudd governments counter-terrorism White Paper the most substantial, and arguably the most controversial, development to Australia’s international security laws came from the Abbott/Turnbull Liberal government which approved and implemented strict legislation around the mandatory retention of individual Australian’s private usage data by telecommunications companies in addition to existing surveillance operations (Walsh 2016, pp. 62-63), and supplying of this information by telecommunications providers at the request of authorized government agencies (Hocking 2003, p. 363), essentially placing the entire nation under 24-hour surveillance when any connected device for any reason. While this was seen as a necessary step to securing sensitive and potentially harmful information which could stop terrorist attacks serious questions have been raised by scholars of the critical school of terrorism studies as to the validity of this level of monitoring as potentially invasive of individuals privacy and basic liberty.
The mandatory collection and storage of individuals data usage history and access to this borders a fine line between necessary surveillance for security and complete erosion of privacy and personal freedoms. While a society cannot exist in complete freedom for fear of vulnerability (Lutz & Lutz 2013, p. 292) so drastic is the action taken by the Australian government that it appears as the sort of policy more likely to be enforced in closed authoritarian regimes where the state controls its people and monitors their citizens for dissent, yet here it exists in Australia’s contemporary liberal democracy (Hadjimatheou 2013, p. 2; Hague & Harrop 2013, p. 9). Lutz & Lutz (2013, p. 292) assert that a democratic government which makes sure terrorists are rooted out risk transforming their political system into something much less free. The fact that a modern, western liberal democracy is able to legitimize the need for this level of surveillance, not to mention the expenditure required to facilitate it, as Australia has suggests either a lack of respect for the freedom of the individuals living within its society or a hypersensitivity to terrorism, particularly when considering the incredibly low probability of a terrorist attack occurring and thus a perceived need for monitoring at all costs, despite any significant incidents of foreign extremist terrorism occurring on Australian shores to validate this.
By comparison similar policy does exist in France however, unlike Australia, France has suffered from a multitude of terror attacks at the hands of Islamic extremists since 2015 including those in Paris, Nice and the Charlie Hebdo shootings (Houry 2018, para. 4-8; Quillare 2015, p. 55). The sheer number of casualties and disruption to French way of life showed clear reasoning for policy changes and implementation of stricter, more preventative measures to be enforced with surveillance monitoring and data retention among the most prevalent. While these historical attacks may validate the French decision to increase data retention policy Australia has, to date, not suffered from any form of mass casualty terror attack (Islamic or otherwise) yet has still felt it necessary to enforce mass surveillance of its people. According to Battersby (2018, p. 66) Australia has allegedly eroded civil liberties under anti-terrorist legislation more than any other country during this period. While this may be validation in and of itself, as the increased levels of surveillance could have stopped potential terror attacks, the fact that this has not been the case suggests that Australia may not be entirely justified.
Given the analysis already conducted on issues of counter-terrorism operations and the emerging threat of cyber-security in Australia the need for some level of surveillance and ability to monitor potentially escalating situations is clear. However, in doing so, the question must be asked as to whether or not operational surveillance is infringing upon an individuals liberty and what far reaching effects, if any, this could have (Aradau 2008, p. 295; Suzor, Pappalardo & McIntosh 2017, p. 3). As far back as the Howard government shortly after September 11, this question has been identified and included in parliamentary discussion and policy making efforts as a key point of contention that should not be overlooked for the simplicity of being able to gather information (Department of the Parliamentary Library 2002, p. ii-iii). Despite this, as time has gone on, the ethical debate has been ignored with policy instead implemented on the proviso of protecting the national interest at all costs. Similar policy was enacted in the United Kingdom as part of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 however subsequent investigation deemed this operation to be unlawful before being repealed and subsequently replaced with legislation that better respected the privacy of the individual citizen (Hardy 2018, para. 1). In their summary of this case the Human Rights Law Centre identified the similarities between the repealed legislation and that of the active data retention policy in Australia describing the later as “more onerous and invasive” than the British article which was repealed as unlawful (Hardy 2018, para. 13).
Based on the earlier contextualization of Australia, its position on terrorism and counter-terrorism issues, and considering the examples of similar nations presented in the case study it is fair to assume that in the context of the current international landscape Australia has gone too far in its attempts to monitor the public in the name of security, and that this has impacted directly on citizens individual liberty (Suzor, Pappalardo & McIntosh 2017, p. 3). While it is always more beneficial, given the rampant and random nature of terrorism, to be pro-active the level of authority and autonomy given to Australian agencies in accessing detailed records of individuals data usage and habits for profiling purposes this act alone borders on an invasion of privacy and violation of their basic human rights (Suzor, Pappalardo & McIntosh 2017, p. 2). As a country which has already suffered investigation for human rights failures in the unethical treatment of refugees and migrants (Human Rights Watch 2016, para. 1-4) a further human rights case to answer for unethical treatment of individual liberty by supplying personal information gathered from its own citizens to foreign parties would be less than ideal.
When considering the severity of the laws in comparison to the minimal amount of terrorist activity that have been halted as a result of their existence the issue then is objectively determining whether the low levels of terrorist activity are as a direct result of this, in which case the laws have been successful, necessary and have achieved their intended purpose, or, if the low levels of terrorist activity are proportionate to the statistical analysis which suggests an extremely low probability to begin with in which case their implementation has done nothing more than assist the government in enforcing the mass collection of personal information on citizens for purposes which may never truly be identified or acknowledged. This is not to understate the benefit that data retention can have in the fight against terrorism but rather to highlight the need to grant basic human freedoms, such as freedom of movement and speech, to all within Australian society first and foremost without any implications brought about by surveillance or security.
By analysing and discussing Australia’s counter-terrorism policy reformation following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the subsequent involvement in the War on Terror, and the development of cyber-terrorism as a legitimate threat to national security this essay demonstrates how while initial approaches were born from a place of legitimate concern they have devolved into ethically questionable invasions of privacy which have in turn impacted on individual liberty. This is highlighted throughout from the ease at which personal data can be accessed by self-authorised bodies to the severity of the surveillance, notably when compared to France where similar laws have come into existence only after significant acts of terror were carried out. Further damning comparisons from the United Kingdom, where similar policy was repealed as it was deemed to be unlawful and invasive of individual liberty, further highlights the severity of the issue faced by Australia. Ultimately while national security must remain of the highest priority to the government elected to serve the Australian people they must consider the precedent set by resorting to authoritarian style surveillance at the cost of liberty or else risk devolution into a police state in the name of security.
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