Accountability under attack in National Security Inquiry

This week the Government announced an Inquiry into potential reforms of National Security Legislation. From the terms of reference:

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is to inquire into potential reforms of National Security Legislation, as set out in the attachment and which include proposals relating to the:
a) Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979
b) Telecommunications Act 1997
c) Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979
d) Intelligence Services Act 2001

Naturally there are a whole lot of things included in the terms of reference of the Inquiry that relate to the collection and use of information, and in particular the move to widespread and unchecked collection and retention of data on citizens (for a good summary see Senator Scott Ludlam’s July 10 media releas, ‘National Security review – speak up now’),  but what I particularly noticed was this, in the Discussion paper, under ‘Streamlining and reducing complexity’:

The requirements are aimed at ensuring that agencies keep appropriate records necessary to demonstrate that agencies are using their powers lawfully. However, many of the requirements reflect historical concerns about corruption and the misuse of covert powers and do not reflect the current governance and accountability frameworks within which agencies operate.

As Bernard Keane noted in is his piece on the Inquiry in Crikey this week:

The paper wants to dump legislated requirements for record-keeping relating to accountability for agency storage and usage or intercepted data because they are “one size fits all”, inflexible and “process oriented” i.e. the same claims made by business when complaining about “red tape”. The paper recommends accountability processes that are “more attuned to providing the information needed to evaluate whether intrusion to privacy under the regime is proportioate to public outcomes.

Reducing requirements for recordkeeping and accountability for the government as it seeks to put in place the most comprehensive and intrusive regime of spying and data collection in our history is an extremely serious matter. The notion that somehow abuse of covert powers is an ‘historical concern’ that we need no longer worry about would be laughable if it did not have such serious implications. Muhamed Haneef would no doubt agree that having evidence of what was done, when and under whose authority was essential for justice in his case. And it’s hardly ‘historical’.

Not only are we seeing the government push for less accountability in the way surveillance and interception activities are performed, but there are proposals in the paper on making it easier for the agencies concerned (at all levels of government) to work with the private sector, pushing any chance of government accountability even further out of the picture.

The Recordkeeping Roundtable, the Australian Society of Archivists and hopefully other individuals and groups concerned with recordkeeping will be making submissions to the Inquiry. If the Government succeeds in using expanded powers to watch, record and analyse its citizens, then our ability to hold them to account becomes more important than ever.

Submissions to the Inquiry are due by August 6 2012

About Cassie Findlay

Digital recordkeeping, archives and privacy professional, co-founder of the Recordkeeping Roundtable. @CassPF on Twitter.
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