Where were the howls of protest last week when it was revealed that our very own Telstra had a secret surveillance agreement with the American FBI and the US Department of Justice?

Could it be we don’t care? Or worse, are we happy to be surveilled by a foreign government?

Unbeknownst to us all 12 years ago Telstra agreed to store all electronic communications between those of us who email, phone or otherwise message Americans. And the storage facility is in the United States, not here in Australia (not that that would lessen the privacy concerns). It is staffed by American citizens who, according to Fairfax  have high-level security clearance.

Prima facie, you’d have to think the American government is snooping on us, aided and abetted by Telstra which, when it signed the agreement back in 2001, was still 50% owned by the federal government led by John Howard. 

snowdenAll of this is significant given the recent revelations by American whistleblower, Edward Snowden (left) who is still holed up in a transit hotel at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport waiting for the Russians to decide whether they’ll come good on their promise of political asylum, whilst the US government pressures all and sundry – including the Kremlin – to hand him over to its justice department for prosecution.

The documents Snowden coughed up to The Guardian newspaper proved the US government systematically snoops on its own citizens and some of other nations. Snowden had evidence of a secret court order for a telephone company to hand over to the government, telecommunications data for all calls through its network.

He also had details of the so called Prism program, approved by the US Congress, allowing the logging of all telephonic and digital communications between people living inside the USA and between those in America and those they contact abroad.

That gives the US Government access to all emails, video and voice chat, videos, photos, stored data, VoIP [internet phone calls], file transfers, video conferencing and online social networking details.

In other words, your entire digital footprint.  

And the tracking occurs without warrant and regardless of whether the communication has any bearing on US national security, the usual justification for snooping.


What alarmed most was that this Orwellian system allows the US wiretapping agency, the National Security Agency, “ to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.” No judicial overview, whatsoever.

But it turns out Washington had access to US-Australian telecommunications via another back door. 

The Americans gained access to our digital communications through an under sea cabling joint venture known as Reach, formed by Telstra and the Hong Kong based PCCW.

Under the terms of the agreement obtained and published by Crikey, Reach (which reportedly owns a fair swag of the telecommunications cables going into and out of the Asia-Pacific) agreed to send all communications to or from the US to an American based storage facility “from which Electronic Surveillance can be conducted pursuant to Lawful US Process.”

The agreement specifies that “Telstra must preserve and have the ability to provide wire and electronic communications involving any customers who make any form of communication with a point of contact in the US, as well as transactional data and call associated data relating to such communications.”

And why did the US Government have the muscle to impose this? 

Because telecommunications services into and out of the United States are subject to the US’s national security laws. The under sea cabling would have been tapping into these communications in and out of the United States.

Telstra for its part isn’t saying whether the agreement still stands. Our telecommunications giant is simply sounding beleaguered and unrepentant.

In a statement, it said: “This agreement, at that time 12 years ago, reflected Reach’s operating obligations in the US that require carriers to comply with US domestic law”.

It’s a tangled web. And one that Telstra apparently stumbled in to and agreed to be a part of, unfortunately at our peril. 

And the Greens at least, are not impressed. They would like some answers about why, exactly, Telstra felt compelled to sign up. They see it as ‘invasion of privacy and erosion of Australia’s sovereignty”.

The “invasion of privacy” bit is, of course the exact same concern that Edward Snowden had when he began blowing the whistle on his own government.

If Russia gives him asylum, you can be sure the deal will come with a coterie of security officers and informants to guarantee he doesn’t get his hands on any of the Kremlin’s telecommunications dirty tactics.

Like the US, the Kremlin isn’t exactly famous for respecting individual privacy. 



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 src=*Monica Attard OAM is a five-time Walkley award-winning Australian journalist – including the Gold Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism 1991. She was the host of the ABC’s PM, the World Today and Media Watch. She spent 28 years at the ABC, leaving to start up The Global Mail where she was, until recently, the Managing Editor. In 1997, Monica published a book entitled Russia: Which Way Paradise? documenting her time there as a foreign correspondent. You can follow her on Twitter: @attardmon.  


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