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How Australia just became a ‘national security state’

An arrest following the execution of search warrants across Sydney’s northwest suburbs on Sept. 18, 2014. (EPA/NSW Police)

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had some “regrettable” news. It was late last month, Australia had just thwarted an Islamic State plot to behead random Australians, and the prime minister’s tone was somber. “Regrettably, for some time to come, Australians will have to endure more security than we’re used to, and more inconvenience than we would like,” he told the country’s parliament. “Regrettably for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift.”

Consider the balanced shifted. Since those remarks, Australia has endowed its nation’s intelligence agencies with their most significant expansion of powers in 35 years, legalized the surveillance of the entire Australian Internet with one warrant, threatened whistleblowers and journalists with 10-year prison terms if they publicize classified information, and is mulling a new law that makes it easier to detain Australians without charge and subject them to “coercive questioning.”

Taken together, these are sweeping changes in a nation generally considered one of the most liberal in the world — and mark a profound consequence of the emergence of the Islamic State, which has lured scores of Australians to its cause and threatened the country several times in recent weeks.

“It was about these violent random acts,” the Australian quoted the federal police chief saying following one threat. “It’s that random nature that had to prompt us to do something today. We could no longer be comfortable that we could protect the community.”

Times of panic have long driven countries to mortgage civil liberties for a broader sense of security. The United States passed the Espionage Act shortly after entering World War I, then interned more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, then passed the Patriot Act following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — and is now mired in a national debate on the National Security Agency’s sprawling surveillance.

Even by those standards, however, critics warn Australia is heading into unsure territory. While the United States engaged in a sweeping surveillance program to thwart terrorists and imprisoned detainees without charge, the Constitution enabled challenges to the system, many of which have gone to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But “Australia does not have a written Bill of Rights in its Constitution, making its freedom-abridging laws even harder to challenge in court,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit civil-liberties advocate, said in a statement. It called the just-passed measures a “week in history when it became easier for the Australian government to surveil and manipulate the Internet at will.”

The nuts and bolts of the recently-passed bill: It allows authorities to access data from computers with a warrant, but expands the definition of “computer” to include “one or more computer networks.” This, analysts warned, means that Australian law enforcement agencies can now monitor the entire Internet with one warrant — because the Internet is really just one big computer network.

“The drafting of this is so vague that it really could be extended,” Jon Lawrence of Electronic Frontiers Australia, a nonprofit digital-rights advocate, told the Sydney Morning Herald. “A network can essentially be anything from three computers on a Wi-Fi modem to potentially an entire corporate network or an entire Internet service provider network or at the extreme end, the whole Internet.”

Then it granted criminal and civil immunity to law enforcement agents who may break the law in the course of the work as long as those prospective crimes don’t cause death, serious injury, sexual harm or significant property damage. The bill also made it an offense, punishable by 10 years in prison, for anyone — whistleblower, journalist or otherwise — to “disclose information” relating “to a special intelligence operation.”

Australia’s press corps just about went apoplectic over that one. Calling it an “unprecedented clause,” an alliance of Australian media companies released a joint statement, denouncing it. “The insertion of [the] proposed section … could potentially see journalists jailed for undertaking and discharging their legitimate role in a modern democratic society — reporting in the public interest,” the statement said. “Such an approach is untenable.”

And now, Australian authorities will consider a proposed national security law that will significantly increase authorities’ powers to detain people without charge. According to the Guardian, the law would hasten a complicated process so that “people can essentially be held without contact with the outside world, may lose the right to silence and may be subject to coercive questioning.”

Australian security agencies cheered the new strident law in a letter to Parliament: “There are realistic and credible circumstances in which it may be necessary to conduct coercive questioning of a person for the purpose of gathering intelligence about a terrorism offense.”

Not everyone is so enthused — with that law, or the others. Given the rise of the Islamic State, some critics, even while bemoaning the passage of the draconian measures, have expressed resignation.

“When will it all end?” a Sydney Morning Herald opinion column asked. “Will these national securities laws ever be repealed? Probably never. The ‘war on terrorism’ appears endless. … The national security state is empowered, cashed-up and here to stay.”