Australia: One nation under surveillance

What we are seeing in Australia today is a veil of censorship, secrecy and the surveillance being drawn across government and Australian Public Service agencies. When it comes to monitoring by public service agencies there is a dangerous lack of transparency and accountability.


All of this is a threat our freedoms, our right to know, better government and better public services. And we are not being asked if this is the sort of society we want.


At the end of this post are links to the more detailed article Australia: One nation under surveillance and additional documentation. Before continuing you may want to view our Talking points.




The recent Melbourne Age piece Silence echoes across Canberra as the Coalition clams up says it all.

But two months since the election, it's increasingly becoming apparent that a "no-surprises" government is coming at the cost of open government.


As shown in the Canberra Times piece Cash sought for FOI brief releases we are increasingly seeing Australian Public Service agencies pulling back on Freedom of Information.

But more than a month after the Abbott government was sworn in, none of its briefs has been released.


A veil of secrecy is being drawn around government and the public service. This is despite the Coalition's Policy for e-Government and the Digital Economy stating they will,

accelerate Government 2.0 efforts to engage online, make agencies transparent and provide expanded access to useful public sector data


To be fair, it was the previous Labor Government that wanted to expand digital surveillance powers to mass surveil the communications of citizens.




In the meantime the Australian Public Service has been going its own merry way. Most notably, by seeking to prevent public servants from engaging in any discussion of public service issues with members of the public via social media. Under the guise of cyber-bullying they are now attempting to shut citizens up. To find out more about this read my post The Australian Public Service thinks the barbarians are at the gate


In my talk at the IPAA social media seminar held in September I highlighted the need for public interest discussions between public servants (in a private capacity) and the wider community. Near the end of my talk the Government's Chief Technology Officer asserted that these freedoms did not exist and proceeded to repeat the Australian Public Service Commission's view that harsh criticism is not on.


The Australian Public Service Commission's policy on harsh criticism is nonsense. These freedoms need to exist to ensure transparency and accountability. What Australian Public Service agencies are doing under the guise of this policy is creating an environment where self-censorship and the hiding of information will flourish. Mind you, they are watching you.

APS agencies may have systems in place for monitoring emails and tracking postings, comments, websites, blogs, etc. for content about their agency or employees, including by designating staff to monitor online content.



Your right to know

May have systems in place? The community has a right to know. Which leads me to the nature of surveillance in Australia.


  • The security and policing agencies are the top tier of surveillance. They have access to the latest technologies enabling mass surveillance.


  • Then we have Australian Public Service agencies. They have acquired technologies to monitor what is being said and who is saying it via social media. They are, if you like, the second tier of surveillance.


  • Sitting beneath that we have the administrative and legislative glue that holds Australian Public Service agencies together and plays an important role in ensuring censorship and secrecy.



Why be concerned

It is bad enough that we are surveilled roughly 800 times per day. See The Australian Government Snoop Patrol. What we are now seeing is evidence that Australian Public Service agencies are building a surveillance state by stealth.

What is very clear in all of this is that transparency and accountability need to be ramped up to prevent the erosion of democracy and bad behaviour on the part of public service agencies.

Given the power of technology and the bureaucracy we need, like Canada, a  Charter of Rights and Freedoms to ensure the ethical use of our information and freedom of the press. If we do not we may very well end up with a system of total surveillance that is impossible to dismantle.


Find out more

Read the detailed paper Australia: One nation under surveillance


Consider Views from the street


View actual Surveillance and monitoring purchases

View, share and discuss our poster Democracy. That's what the entire issue of surveillance boils down to.


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Comment by steve davies on December 19, 2013 at 9:11am
Liberty and Security in a Changing World Page 12 - Protecting democracy, civil liberties and the rule of law - Should be compulsory reading for the Public Service Commission.
Comment by steve davies on November 26, 2013 at 9:18am

FOI Request to the Australian Public Service Commission - 26 November 2013

Below is the text of my freedom of information request to the APSC concerning monitoring and surveillance undertaken by Australian Public Service agencies.

Dear FOI Contact Officer (Australian Public Service Commission),

The Cyber-bulling guide published by the Commission contains the following statement,
"APS agencies may have systems in place for monitoring emails and tracking postings, comments, websites, blogs, etc. for content about their agency or employees, including by designating staff to monitor online content. These staff may also be responsible for identifying, evaluating, and responding to inappropriate online conduct."

The APSC's apparent lack of transparency, as a central agency, on this important matter of public interest is most disturbing. The public and, potentially, public servants commenting in a private capacity, have the right to know which agencies are using what technologies to monitor and surveil them. It is not good enough to simply say "may have systems in place".

The purpose of this FOI request is to obtain such information.
It may be the case that the APSC does not hold this information centrally. However, I put it to the APSC that it should.
I have undertaken some research concerning question of monitoring and surveillance by APS agencies. That research points to such monitoring and surveillance being carried out.
However, what is also very clear is that there is  lack of transparency and accountability. In sort, APS agencies appear to have given themselves carte blanche. Especially where social media is concerned.
The full details of my research are contain in my post Australia: One nation under surveillance. To facilitate this request I have attached the two key documents relevant to my FOI request.
The specific questions I would appreciate the APSC addressing are as follows:
1. A full list of the software used by APS agencies to monitor what is being said about them online.
2. A full list of the software used by APS agencies to undertake network analysis. In short, who is saying what.
3. A full list of external services and providers (government and private) used to carry out such monitoring on behalf of APS agencies.
4. Staffing resources devoted to such monitoring by APS agencies.
5. An indication of the intent of this monitoring.
6. Whether data and information is shared between agencies.
7. If agencies do share data and information - with whom and for what purpose.
8. Is data and information shared with the security services and, if so, what are the criteria for doing so.
If you have any questions concerning this request do not hesitate to contact me.
I appreciate that we are nearing the holiday season and, therefore, you may not be able to respond within the timeframes specified by the OAIC. With that in mind I propose that the APSC respond to me by 31 January 2014.
For reasons of transparency I also wish to advise you that I will be putting forward some proposals to the OAIC to address the lack of transparency on this matter.
Yours sincerely

Steve Davies
Comment by Janice Speary on November 23, 2013 at 9:24am
I think the question we need to ask is to what extent is monitoring taking place? If they are able to track what websites, forums, pages etc you go between whilst on the Internet are they also watching your internet banking? Spying into your finances? Does that mean the ATO spy's on citizens and then audits then for tax? Does centrelink spy on civilians in the same way? If so, that's a major breach of privacy and as a nation we have a right to know. If we spy'd on them through the same systems to see what they were doing I have no doubt we would end up being convicted criminals.
Comment by Deep S on November 23, 2013 at 8:00am

Excellent article Steve.

Perhaps Jade we can also draw inspiration from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, last paragraph:

"It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

My experience has been with the ATO. As I have said before, this arm of government has developed surveillance and monitoring into an art form - one of the finest in the country IMO. Its use of internal media to control staff is nothing short of frightening. I have previously given examples of emails sent to staff just before they complete an "anonymous" questionnaire.


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