ThoughtWorks Appears at Australian Senate Inquiry into Surveillance

The Australian Senate Inquiry into the comprehensive revision of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 is the only public Inquiry to have been held in Australia since revelations about mass surveillance.

Concerned about the negative consequences of mass surveillance for both business and the privacy of citizens in Australia, ThoughtWorks made a submission and appeared before the Committee to give evidence, joining other businesses such as iinet and the partners of the CommsAlliance.

ThoughtWorks representative Lindy Stephens referred to the April finding by the European Court of Justice that mandatory data retention violated fundamental rights and was illegal.  She noted costs incurred by businesses in Europe in establishing and then dismantling infrastructures and procedures should not be repeated in Australia due to policy uncertainty.

Another notable development Lindy discussed with the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee was the report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that strongly emphasized the responsibilities of businesses in preventing mass surveillance and violations of the right to privacy.  

Business is obliged and willing to uphold the laws of the countries in which they operate, however, tensions and difficulties are experienced when government agencies demand information from companies without regard for the human and economic cost, or the reputational impact on those businesses.

ThoughtWorks was able to provide a unique perspective as a business that works with a lot of other businesses - banks, ISPs, the insurance sector, airlines, government departments, Australia’s largest telco, NGOs, UN organisations, hospitals and major newspaper outlets.

Through providing custom software services to this very diverse set of businesses using the Internet to deliver their products and services and to engage with their customers and partners, we know that our concerns about the cost burdens of telecommunications interception and the risk burden of policy uncertainty are not ours alone.  

The Committee asked ThoughtWorks questions about the controversial subject of metadata.  The UN Human Rights Commissioner found that under International Law telco companies and ISPs being required to store metadata is neither necessary nor proportionate.

Given what we know, as technologists, about the form and nature of metadata we agree with the High Commissioner for Human Rights that the distinction often made between content and metadata is not persuasive.  In fact, given how much information is contained in metadata, the distinction should be abandoned as reflective of an outdated understanding or an inability to understand how technology has changed communication.

A September Protiviti survey of Australian managers and executives showed that 78% of businesses  want to cooperate with agencies but would prefer a court order / warrant.  

Campaigns in Australia are heating up - Stop the Spies is a gateway for information and sending a message to policy makers, and the  #StopDataRetention competition has generated many memes.  A very broad group of businesses and organisations from across the political spectrum, including ThoughtWorks, brought their concerns to parliament about legislation introduced on Wednesday 29 October to require all ISPs and businesses to collect metadata for two years across all data sets.