All Five Eyes — really, all eyes in the democratic world — are on Australia, watching its ingenious solution to what seemed an insoluble problem: How to conform the needs of modern network surveillance for combatting crime and terrorism, with the demands of democratic governance. In their remarkably forthright way, they have recognised that there are two basic problems:
- Espionage agencies have an alarming tendency to involve themselves in illegal activity;
- Their activities tend to cause scandals, as citizens grow alarmed by hearing of what they consider to be threats to their privacy.
Their solutions are equally forthright. Rather than trying stopgaps of limiting the information collected, time periods for which it can be stored, purposes to which the information may be applied, and blah blah blah, which are completely arbitrary, and only end up forcing hard-working spies to spend their time thinking up ingenious subterfuges to evade the rules, they have attacked the problem at its roots. According to a recent news report, the Australian government plans to propose legislation under which
- ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) will have the power to declare their activities to be “special intelligence operations”, in which intelligence officers receive immunity from liability for actions that would be “otherwise illegal”. Since requiring even the head of their own agency to sign off on unlimited warrants for lawbreaking would be too onerous, approval of ASIO’s deputy director general will suffice.
- To avoid scandals, all reporting on special intelligence operations will be banned, punishable by up to five years in prison. (And that’s only if the leaks are inconsequential; disclosing information that would “endanger the health or safety of any person or prejudice the effective conduct of a special intelligence operation” could get you 10 years.) The beauty of the system is that, since no one outside the organisation actually knows which operations are special, journalists — and academics, and pretty much everyone else — will have to stop talking about the security services altogether. And since the security services will have access to all of their electronic records in real time, there’s little risk of people deciding to hold these discussions in private.
Once Australians have stopped troubling their pretty little heads about espionage, all that redirected intellectual energy will help the Australian economy to better compete with China.