SYDNEY, Australia – The U.S. surveillance scandal has washed up on the shores of two of Washington’s major allies, Australia and New Zealand, with both nations accused of cooperation with secret U.S. data collection.
Revelations last week published by the London Guardian and Washington Post concerning a clandestine U.S. data collection program that tracks phone and Internet messages globally have sparked international turmoil.
Washington has confirmed the existence of the secret program, code-named PRISM, which has given the government access to emails, Web chats and other communications through companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Skype. The program was exposed by Edward Snowden, a former American defense contractor.
Both Australia and New Zealand now face difficult questions about the program the White House claims was principally targeted at non-U.S. citizens, particularly about whether they have cooperated with secret electronic data mining.
It is well-known that both nations share intelligence with the U.S. In the postwar 1940s, the five major Western powers established their own intelligence alliance, informally known as the “five eyes,” to collect and share intelligence. Australia and New Zealand are members of the group along with Britain, Canada and the U.S.
The exposure of the NSA’s vast spy program has drawn America’s two Pacific allies into a furious global debate about secret surveillance.
In New Zealand, Internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, founder of Megaupload.com, claimed a lawsuit he is pursuing against New Zealand’s spy agency will reveal that it passed intelligence illegally gathered on him to the NSA.
“The New Zealand GCSB spy agency was used to spy on my family because all surveillance was available to American agencies in real time,” he tweeted, referring to the Government Communications and Security Bureau, New Zealand’s equivalent of the NSA.
Dotcom, who is fighting extradition to the U.S. on charges of online piracy, said: “My case against the spy agency in New Zealand will show the degree of cooperation with the NSA.”
The Government Communications and Security Bureau (GCSB) was found by a New Zealand watchdog to have illegally spied on Dotcom by intercepting his personal communications in 2012 in an effort to secure evidence in an copyright piracy and money laundering case.
A New Zealand government spokeswoman declined to comment Sunday when asked if the GCSB cooperated with the NSA program.
“We do not comment on security and intelligence matters. New Zealand’s intelligence agencies are subject to an oversight regime, which we are looking to strengthen.”
Conservative opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull joined several other key political figures to express concern.
“Australians will be very troubled by the allegation in the Guardian and other publications that the U.S. National Security Agency is engaged in large-scale, covert surveillance of private data belonging to non-U.S. citizens held by American companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and YouTube,” Turnbull said.
Australian privacy advocates are demanding authorities be more transparent on how much local data is being captured by U.S. security agencies.
When asked if Canberra had cooperated with Washington’s secret initiative, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said that the Australian government would “examine carefully any implications in what has emerged for the security and privacy of Australians.”
Australian unease increased when London Guardian reported that Britain’s signals intelligence agency had gathered information on British citizens through the NSA program.
Professionals and privacy advocates claimed there was little doubt of Australians’ data sitting in the enormous vaults collected and monitored by PRISM. In addition, there are now questions swirling over the possibility of Australian law-enforcement and intelligence agencies receiving data from the U.S. digital surveillance program.
The Australian WikiLeaks Party, for whom Julian Assange will be a senatorial candidate in the upcoming Australian elections, issued this statement : “The NSA revelations paint a simple picture of what occurs when powerful agencies have the ability to make secret orders to collect data on us without a proper balancing of the community’s interests.”
Electronic Frontiers Australia also added its voice to the fray.
“Given the close working relationship between Australian and U.S. intelligence agencies, it is therefore reasonable to presume that Australian intelligence agencies have also been receiving information gathered through the PRISM program about Australian citizens,” wrote Jon Lawrence.
“If this is true, it represents an outrageous affront to the privacy and civil liberties of all Australians, and the Australian government must inform the Australian people about what they knew of these surveillance activities,” he said. “It is not acceptable to hide behind the standard line that the government does not ‘comment on national security and intelligence capabilities,’ which has been the attorney general’s initial response.”
The Federal Opposition expressed anxiety that data warehoused by Australians in the computer servers of Google and Facebook could be accessed by the NSA. Meanwhile, the far-left Green party has demanded clarification from the government .
Australia is yet to decide on its own legislation pertaining to greater access of data for Internet providers.
“I’m not sure what the legislative backing for events in the U.S. has been. We have tried here to do ours as transparently as possible, with all the headaches that brings. This will make that worse,” an Australian government source said.
This week, Independent Sen. Nick Xenophon said: ”These problems on metadata could turn into a mega problem for our democracy.”