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Thursday, 13 June 2013 16:30

Revealed – Australia’s own PRISM facility Featured

By

The Defence Department is building a new secret communications facility designed to handle the ‘data deluge’ of electronic intelligence the US shares with Australia. PRISM is in town.

In the quiet Canberra suburb of Harman, abutting the NSW border near Queanbeyan, is the Royal Australian Navy’s communications complex. In the quaint Navy way of naming shore facilities as if they are ships (the phrase is ‘stone frigates’) it is called HMAS Harman.

The Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) will be one of the main tenants in a new data centre being built at HMAS Harman. A number of contracts have been signed, including $11 million with John Holland for the building construction, which still stands empty. The government said in its initial tender documents that the works would be completed by March 2013, and that the total cost of the project would be ‘in the order of’ $135 million’.

The DSD (motto – ‘Reveal their secrets – Protect our own’) is Australia’s equivalent of the US National Security Agency (NSA). That shadowy US body has made headline news this week since whistleblower Ed Snowden disclosed the extent of its spying operations on US citizens – the PRISM electronic surveillance program.

Such domestic and non-military snooping would normally be way beyond its brief, excepting that the all-encompassing powers handed to the US Government under the post-9/11 Patriot Act allow it to do just about anything it wants to do. And when governments are given power, they usually exercise it.

Fairfax Media is reporting unnamed sources as saying that Australia’s intelligence agencies are receiving ‘huge volumes of immensely valuable data” from US intelligence sources, including data gained through the PRISM program.

The report also says that the HMAS Harman facility is 8o% over budget, again quoting unnamed officials. There has been very little public disclosure about the facility, though a trawl through Government tenders and Defence statutory reports give shadowy glimpse of its construction. Google Earth shows the construction site, but when you zoom in too far the image reverts to an earlier version which shows bare dirt before construction commenced.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam is on the case. “Revelations from within Australia's intelligence agencies have confirmed the Government is actively complicit in the United States' surveillance of Australian citizens.

"The Australian Government has denied any knowledge of the NSA's widespread online surveillance of people around the world since it was revealed by Edward Snowden. It is now clear that the ‘hear no evil, see no evil' routine is a sham," said Ludlam.

"The Australian Government was aware of the spying, and collaborating to circumvent due process through receipt of vast amounts of surveillance material from the US.”

Ludlum said he will push for the Government to produce documents to disclose the extent of its involvement.

The news deluge about PRISM this week has caused Wikipedia to update its entry:

PRISM is a clandestine national security electronic surveillance program operated by the US National Security Agency since 2007. PRISM is a government codename for a data collection effort known officially asUS-984XN.

Documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden in June 2013 describe the PRISM program as enabling in-depth surveillance on live communications and stored information. It provides for the targeting of any customers of participating corporations who live outside the US, or American citizens whose communications include web content of people outside the US. Data which the NSA is able to obtain with the PRISM program includes email, video and voice chat, videos, photos, VoIP conversations, file transfers, login notifications and social networking details.

According to the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, PRISM cannot be used to intentionally target any Americans or anyone in the US. Clapper said a special court, Congress, and the executive branch oversee the program and extensive procedures ensure the acquisition, retention, and dissemination of data accidentally collected about Americans is kept to a minimum. Clapper issued a statement and ‘fact sheet’ to correct what he characterised as ‘significant misimpressions’ in articles by The Washington Post and The Guardian newspapers.

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Graeme Philipson

Graeme Philipson sadly passed away in Jan 2021 and a much valued senior associate editor at iTWire. He was one of Australia’s longest serving and most experienced IT journalists. He is the author of the only definitive history of the Australian IT industry, ‘A Vision Splendid: The History of Australian Computing.’He was in the high tech industry for more than 30 years, most of that time as a market researcher, analyst and journalist. He was founding editor of MIS magazine, and is a former editor of Computerworld Australia. He was a research director for Gartner Asia Pacific and research manager for the Yankee Group Australia. He was a long time weekly IT columnist in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and is a recipient of the Kester Award for lifetime achievement in IT journalism. Graeme will be sadly missed by the iTWire Family, Readers, Customers and PR firms.

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