Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Mass surveillance of internet and phone users becomes law

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Draconian new laws have been passed by both major parties to force internet and telecommunications providers to keep detailed information on what Australians access over the internet and how they use their phones. ‘Metadata retention’ will apply to all phone and internet users – not simply those thought to be committing any crime. Privacy is a basic democratic right, and socialists oppose all such attacks on people’s rights.

By David Elliott, Socialist Party

Retaining this data will impose a considerable cost on Internet Service Providers – a cost that will be passed on to taxpayers and internet users. While the government claims it will be used against suspected terrorists, in practice security agencies have always been used for political purposes – many activists, and even politicians, have found themselves with ASIO (security service) files.

In 2009, the Resources Minister Martin Ferguson pressed the Attorney-General to use the Australian Federal Police to gather intelligence on anti-coal-mining protestors. In 2012, Attorney-General Nicola Roxon revealed that her office has ASIO spying on environmental activists. Security agencies around the world, including in Australia, have also been caught sending undercover investigators into activist groups.

In 2004, two Herald-Sun journalists faced contempt of court for refusing to provide police with the name of a source who had leaked plans by the Howard Government to deny welfare to war veterans. The police attempted to use the journalists’ phone records to track down the source by cross-checking it with numbers at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The treatment of whistle-blowers like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald have shown the degree to which resources will be wasted by security agencies to defend profit interest.

The new laws make it far easier for security agencies to compile detailed information on the personal lives of political opponents of the government. Content of messages won’t be included as ‘metadata’, but data-mining technology makes it possible to reveal a range of personal details about activists, journalists, and whistle-blowers regardless. This places whistle-blowers at risk of being targeted with smear campaigns as they have been in the past, or pursued using unjust laws.

Meanwhile, the use of the laws in actually addressing threats to the community is limited. South Australia’s Assistant Police Commissioner Paul Dickson recently told a Canberra meeting that they were sometimes overwhelmed with metadata that they didn’t have the resources to process it. Similar schemes in Sweden were dropped by telecommunications companies for similar reasons.

The previous Labor government proposed similar laws, among others, after regular lobbying meetings with the big entertainment companies, who want to use these laws to make it easier to criminalise and attack the 1-in-4 Australians who engage in file-sharing online. But the broader motivation for implementing the laws is the perception of the ruling class that there is an increasing need to keep a check on people, as their system becomes more unstable and is questioned by more and more people.

Both Labor and Liberals have been engaged in austerity – attacking welfare and rights at work, while privatising public assets and downgrading services. Both parties know they will be implementing unpopular budget measures into the future. They are expecting resistance to those measures and the emergence of political forces that will want to challenge big business dominance.

Socialists must campaign for full democratic rights and online privacy for ordinary people, including activists, journalists and whistle-blowers. We call for abolishment of political policing agencies like ASIO and for the regular law enforcement agencies to be brought under the democratic control of the communities they police. Surveillance and attacks on privacy are features of a society ruled by an elite minority – we must fight for a democratic socialist society, controlled by the majority.


The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare many of the problems with capitalism. The Socialist strives to explain the systemic causes of this crisis, and reports about the issues that are important to working people. We also help to organise struggles against the powers that be.

We don’t receive a cent from big business or governments. Our work is fully funded by our supporters. Even if half the people who read our website every month donated a few dollars each we would raise thousands to help our work!

We need organisations of struggle now more than ever, so if you support what we do please consider making a donation.

One-off or regular donations can be made securely HERE.