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Australia’s intelligence services have been happy — at least in principle — to share raw data about the communications of Australian citizens with espionage partners in the U.S. and Britain, according to the latest NSA leak published by the Guardian.
Australia is part of the so-called Five Eyes alliance, which was set up in the turbulent 1940s as a way for a core group of English-speaking nations to share signals intelligence with one another and to avoid spying on one another. The other members are the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand.
The latest piece of surveillance-related information, brought to light by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, records a meeting held by the five countries’ intelligence services in 2008. At that meeting, the services discussed how comfortable they were with sharing metadata – the fragments of recorded information that tell the spooks who contacted whom and when.
It seems the Canadians were only OK with sharing metadata they had gathered if it could first be “minimized” – in other words, if information about Canadians or people in Canada could be stripped out. The Australians, on the other hands, were content to share “bulk, unselected, un-minimized data as long as there is no intent to target an Australian national.”
That means it would up to the NSA or the UK’s GCHQ to respect the wishes of their Australian counterparts, in ignoring metadata associated with Australians. “If a ‘pattern of life’ search detects an Australian then there would be a need to contact [Australian intelligence] and ask them to obtain a ministerial warrant to continue,” the meeting minutes said.
The Guardian has already revealed the GCHQ shares British people’s metadata with the NSA without minimization.
Monday’s article quoted Australian-British human rights lawyers Geoffrey Robertson as saying the agreement described in the Snowden papers was illegal under Australia’s Intelligence Services Act 2001, which requires ministerial approval for sharing the data of an Australian citizen. However, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has insisted that proper safeguards were in place, and rejected calls for an inquiry into the intelligence services’ behaviour.
This is the second big Snowden-derived story to cause pain for Abbott’s relatively new conservative government. Revelations of spying on Indonesia have also caused outrage in that country, a key Australian partner in the region.