Why our intelligence agencies need to smarten up

Why our intelligence agencies need to smarten up

October 27, 2014

An Australian Bureau of Statistics recent report on causes of death says that nearly 60 Australians died in 2011 after falling out of bed, 26 died falling off a chair, and four after bumping into another person.

I mention this, not to put you off your morning coffee, but to suggest that we ought to keep the risks that surround us in perspective.

Our national security is important to us, the threats are real, and the acts carried out by terrorists with jihad on their mind are truly despicable. But our reactions to threats should be kept in proportion.

Numerous studies have shown that the world is experiencing an historical period of relative peace. The main difference these days is that graphic horrors are streamed into our lounge rooms and home offices.

Following the events of September 11, 2001, the world went into meltdown. Aeroplanes were grounded, grandmothers made to take their shoes off at airports, and all of us forced to keep deodorants out of our luggage.

This is despite the fact that academics estimate the chance that any one of us will die from a terrorism related event is one in 12.5 million in a given year – which is in the realm of the likelihood of dying from a lightning strike.

However, unlike the risks of lightning strike or falling out of bed, we spend a lot of money combatting terrorism. Australia’s intelligence agencies have grown like the One Direction Fan Club, with ASIO enjoying nearly triple the growth in spending we allocated to either health or welfare from 2000 to 2010.

With ASIO and our other security organisations bursting at the seams with staff and public money, you might think they would be sufficiently resourced to leave us alone and get on with their jobs. But you would be sadly mistaken.

Their recent efforts to have laws changed to allow them to track our activities on the internet suggest they are either incompetent or don’t have enough to do. When they feel it is necessary to impinge on the freedom of 23 million Australians for the sake of a handful of people who, in any case, are posting pictures of themselves on Facebook, you would have to wonder if the sleuths they are recruiting are super enough.

Even in minimalist form, data retention will require the storage of a huge amount of useless information, with an equally huge potential for misuse and needless invasions of our privacy. More to the point, this information may also end up making investigations more complicated.

If finding a bad guy can be equated to finding a needle in a haystack, then data retention will simply make the haystack much bigger. Like all policing, national security work needs to be targeted. It can be done successfully with tools already available, including warrants to investigate and retain the data of those for whom there are reasonable suspicions.

And just to add insult to injury, ASIO is also seeking legislation that gives them protection from criticism.

As they have on previous occasions, our security organisations are over-reaching. Their business is to allow us to enjoy our freedom. They should be reminded that they are servants of the public, not our masters.