AUSTRALIANS using sites like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Skype, or Pinterest could be spied on by US intelligence services, security experts say.
They are calling for a federal investigation after it was revealed that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had been spying on internet users' online activity on sites such as Facebook and Google.
Bruce Arnold, law lecturer at the University of Canberra told news.com.au that any site that bases its servers in the US is actively being monitored by the NSA as part of its PRISM program which looks at foreign communications that take place on US servers.
"Lots of things like Facebook are going offshore," he said. If you're buying a woolly jumper from Myers or David Jones their traffic may be going offshore. DJs is located in Sydney but who knows where its servers are, and you'd have to go to a great deal of trouble to find out where they're based."
Mr Arnold said NSA officials can quite legitimately say 'we're not spying on a particular individual', "because they're not," he said. "But the data they're finding can be related to a particular individual".
"For example they're searching for particular attributes, some of those might be specific to me."
Arnold said that the NSA could be looking at the online activity of people who have made visits to the Middle East over the last six months, or people who have entered a particular search term into Google, for example.
Both Facebook and Google have denied having anything to do with the PRISM program, however experts say they are using "doublespeak" to get around the truth.
Besides, the law lecturer says there is nothing in US law that stops the NSA from looking at Australian web traffic.
"There's no prohibition there," he said. "It's good manners not to but we know that they do it."
Mr Arnold said that Australians should expect to hear some "wild claims" from both sides of the debate on PRISM. He said the government was likely to reassure people that everything is fine and dandy. So too conspiracy theorists want people to believe the world is going to hell in a handbasket. But he said without an Australian whistleblower, we're unlikely to know the truth.
"We're waiting for Australian whistleblower," he said.
He said Australian law enforcement could actually be using PRISM to spy on its own citizens by reverse engineering its data.
When asked whether Australian law enforcement could be "reverse engineering" the PRISM program - obtaining data on Australian citizens from the NSA, Mr Arnold said "yes, certainly".
"I think this is the debate we in Australia need to have and we need to have it soon," he said.
"We need more transparency. We need a real debate about transparency in our international relations with the various international security bodies, intelligence bodies and how they operate."
The online security and law expert said there are benefits from a national security perspective on having an effective surveillance regime to deal with things like drug trafficking, child molesters, and terrorism (etc.). But he said we don't have enough publicly available information to find out if the war on drugs, the war on terror and child protection programs are working.
"We can't tell if it's effective or not," he said. "We don't know what's going on. National security may be incredibly effective or it may be huge waste of money."
ASIO told news.com.au it "had no comment on the matter". The Attorney General's department said it does not comment on matters of national security. Senator Conroy's office, and the Australian Federal Police have not returned news.com.au's requests for comment.
Jon Lawrence, media spokesperson for Electronic Frontiers Australia told news.com.au "there is every reason to assume Australian intelligence agencies are receiving information about Australian citizens and residents from the PRISM program.
The PRISM surveillance program is specifically targeted at non-US citizens, "and that there is evidence from the UK that British intelligence agencies have been receiving information gathered under the program about British citizens and residents", he said. There's no reason why Australians should be excluded.
"EFA calls on the Australian government to explain whether this is the case, and if so, what protections are in place to ensure that the privacy of law-abiding Australians is not being infringed, and whether such access to this information is even legal under Australian law," he said.
"It is not acceptable for the government to hide behind the 'we don't comment on national security issues' line in this instance.
"The US government has confirmed the existence of this program and has explained how it potentially affects US citizens. We expect nothing less of the Australian government."
Greens Senator, Scott Ludlum says the Federal Government should immediately disclose whether or not it has had access to the private information of Australian citizens under the PRISM program.
"A number of the tech companies are denying that they've ever heard of PRISM or that US intelligence agencies have installed 'backdoors' in their servers," Senator Scott Ludlam wrote on his blog.
"Australians use these services to the point of ubiquity. Does the Australian Government believe it is appropriate that the US intelligence agencies appear to be engaged in warrantless real time surveillance of the entire online population? Does the Australian intelligence community have access to this material? And is this the reason the Attorney Generals Department have been so insistent that Australian ISPs institute a two-year data retention regime?"
He said that the PRISM case is a "major example of the important role whistleblowers play".
He said that George Orwell's 1984 "wasn't intended to be an instruction manual".
Technology and security analyst Nigel Phair told news.com.au that even without the PRISM program, the US government has always been able to request information from the Australian Federal Government and vice versa.
"We're hung up on it, but it's not a big deal really," he said.
"They can pass on that information lawfully."
Mr Phair said the concerning aspect is the length and breadth of how they collect this information.
"Some people would argue if you have nothing to hide then it wouldn't matter but it's a bit of a hollow argument," he said.
"You don't leave your car unlocked if you have nothing to hide inside it. A breach is a breach is a breach in my book."
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