Two US federal court decisions in the past month have once again dragged into the spotlight the National Security Agency's Orwellian program of dragnet surveillance. Both courts were testing the constitutional validity of the systematic monitoring of civilians' electronic communications.
The judgments of New York and Washington ultimately disagreed, yet both clearly shared grave concerns that this routine spying posed a very real threat to citizens' liberties.
The District of Columbia's judgment scathingly remarked that it could not conceive of a more ''indiscriminate and arbitrary invasion'' than what was conducted by the NSA. The phone surveillance carried out by the NSA is an insidious and tyrannical program. It involves the systematic combing of millions of people's metadata, in the vague hope that it may unearth some new plot.
It is not only Americans who should be concerned. There is every reason that, if it is not already occurring to the same extent in Australia, we are not far off the same level of government control. As it stands here, organisations such as local councils and the RSPCA are already able to apply for your private phone records.
The ongoing saga of the NSA's scandal is proof that we cannot trust governments with our privacy. The past decade has seen many of our freedoms whittled away for the alleged greater good. Australians' security must be taken seriously; however, the readiness with which we have let the government remove our freedoms to protect us is of grave concern. A fine balance must be struck to ensure that we are defended without opening ourselves to totalitarianism. The NSA revelations are forcing citizens of the Western world to discover what a mammoth and invasive intelligence framework has been created on their behalf.
Barriers are always set in place to protect against such an abuse of power, yet these protections are useless unless we hold the government to account. In theory, all warrants must be granted by an accountable and public court.
The law states that the surveillance cannot be just a fishing expedition and that there has to be a credible reason to justify such an invasion of privacy. In practice, secret courts such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court grant clandestine warrants and no one may read the court's decisions.
It seems the legislature and judiciary do not practise what they preach. It was revealed earlier this year that US telecommunications provider Verizon was ordered by the FISC to hand over to the NSA on an ongoing and daily basis all metadata regarding its customers' telephone calls.
This metadata includes the time the call was made, location data, call duration and any unique identifiers.
Even the chief judge of FISC, Reggie B. Walton, acknowledges that this secret judicial process is merely a rubber stamp. The judges seemed hamstrung and had to trust that the evidence they were provided was accurate. The secret court appeared unable to check the veracity of the NSA's claims. This resulted in decisions being made based solely on information that was provided by the NSA, to justify why the agency should be granted exactly what it wanted.
Turns out that the NSA is way ahead of us and already has at hand technology to decrypt the data of 80 per cent of the world's mobiles.
This is all outrageous enough, yet new reports keep appearing detailing the utter incompetence of the intelligence agencies. These are the people with their hands on information that can track every waking moment of our lives.
A large number of Americans had their phones accidentally monitored when the NSA mixed up the area codes of Egypt (20) and Washington (202). Then there were the spies masquerading as orcs and elves on the online game World of Warcraft. This mission was working just fine and with excellent results — until they realised that the targets were just other undercover agents. There have been cases of jealous NSA employees using the vast surveillance powers at their disposal to spy on spouses and their love interests. This included listening in on calls and tracking their whereabouts using geolocation data.
And Australia is definitely taking the NSA's lead.
Leaked documents have shown that the Australian Signals Directorate (one of our intelligence agencies) felt at ease disseminating the private information of Australians to foreign spy networks. Not just metadata, which already gives a picture-clear map of where you go and who you communicate with, but also the collation of private medical, legal and business records.
This breaches innumerable federal and state laws enacted to prevent such a Big Brother role for government.
Most of us are constantly connected to devices that record everyone we contact and everywhere we go. Even turning off your mobile phone does not stop the GPS from sending data back to the satellite.
This metadata creates a shockingly detailed road map of our lives and is private information that we should guard closely. Every opportunity a government is given to dig deeper into our lives, it will seize and rarely cede. Our loss of privacy is not a concern because governments justify their actions as being for our own good. The threats change but the response never differs: give us more power and we will make all your problems go away.
The federal judgments in New York and Washington will certainly be appealed.
Let us hope that the Supreme Court will take a stand for civil rights and protect US citizens from such an arbitrary invasion into their lives by the state.
Our freedoms are what distinguish us from the authoritarian regimes of this world. We have unwittingly sacrificed our freedoms for our security. Australia must take heed from the scandal gripping America. We are already treading the same sinister path and we must turn back. Otherwise soon we will have our own spy scandals to report.