I recently read the book Pine Gap by David Rosenberg, who worked for the NSA and was stationed at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs in Central Australia, for 18 years. The mostly US-run and secretive base has been the centre of numerous conspiracy theories and protests, but David’s book (as he explains his intention to be) dispels a lot of the wild ideas, while confirming the more expected details.
Similar to Area 51 in the US, Pine Gap receives little major notice, and what attention it does bring is usually due to inaccurate conceptions of what really happens inside. The usual theory is UFOs and alien life camping out the back, but that’s almost certainly not happening. Area 51 is a military base with top secret projects undertaken by the Department of Defence. Pine Gap, in contrast, is run by the NSA to gather intelligence. The majority of this, as Rosenberg explains, was to do with various signal analyses, detecting potential (or real) weapons, aircraft, etc. or locating distress signals from US or allied troops.
While this may have been the main purpose of the base, as the leaks carried out by Snowden showed us, it is unlikely that is all they did. Rosenberg was quite adamant his job was solely dedicated to the military intelligence side – and it seems like it absolutely was, being renowned in his specific field – but it would be naïve to assume that domestic spying of civilians has not taken place in the many decades the site has been open. The second Bush tore down much of the privacy people had after 9/11, and this was expanded under Obama, whose administration hounded Snowden who is now held in exile in Russia.
With successive governments corroding the rights of not only their own citizens, but those of other countries (even allies like Australia and New Zealand), serious questions need to be raised about whether we should allow the Pine Gap base to continue operating. The economic argument – that it is a second economy for the incredibly isolated Alice Springs – is compelling in a way, but I find it difficult to equate economic benefit to privacy rights. At the very least if the base were to remain operational, it should be us and not a foreign power, ally or not, running the show.
Along with the numerous protests, that included breaches of the site’s fences and hundreds marching, ex-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was also a strong opponent of the base. He threatened to have it completely shut down, and may have done so if he wasn’t dismissed in a bizarre, first of its kind case. Speculation is that the CIA had a role in triggering this dismissal, calling up an obscure issue to justify it. This hasn’t been explicitly proven, and Rosenberg discounts it as just pure speculation as well. But when you consider Whitlam’s opposition to both Pine Gap and the Indonesian invasion of East Timor (now Timor-Leste), standing up against international oil and gas giants pushing to claim resources that Australia had no right to and a brutal US-backed dictator in Indonesia that ended up wiping out a third of the East Timor population, the word speculation doesn’t seem to do justice. The US is no stranger to interfering in other countries, ally or enemy, and it seems all too convenient that Fraser – the LNP leader that took over from Whitlam – was a supporter of the base and a friend to the Indonesian dictator Suharto.
Sadly, without concrete proof, speculation and theory will have to suffice. What isn’t theory is the domestic spying that is carried out by the US, and recently by Australia with the new dangerous encryption bill being passed last year. The Labor Party buckled and sold us out, passing the bill so they did not look ‘weak’ on potential threats, sacrificing our rights to do so. As it turns out, not a single terror attack took place in Christmas Day, so that logic by the Coalition was smoke and mirrors as usual. Even with criticisms wondering how our government could actually enforce these laws against tech giants like Google or Facebook, it sets a dangerous precedent for the digital security of our communications that we already know all too well from those same tech giants. But instead of algorithms detecting what you might want advertised to you – distasteful enough – it will be the government monitoring private communications, which just screams 1984.
Rosenberg ends the latest edition of his book with an afterword commenting on the ethics of what he called ‘eavesdropping’ in the aftermath of Snowden’s leaks. He didn’t go as far to criticise Snowden exactly, but did comment about breaking oaths of service (Rosenberg was quite the ‘patriot’, cheering Presidents Bush 1 to Bush 2 in their exploits against ‘the enemy’, although he did have doubts, working in intelligence himself, about where Bush 2 got the WMD information about Iraq). Rosenberg adopts the view that what could be interpreted as an invasion of privacy could be justified in the name of national security, reasoning that even if your data is collected that they wouldn’t care what you did unless you were a person of interest.
But what constitutes a person of interest? Who gets to draw the line on what is and isn’t ‘ethical eavesdropping’? Rosenberg states oversight needs to take place to ensure cases of intelligence workers don’t abuse their powers to, say (as the most common case) spy on partners or ex partners, or media of an unknowing person of a sexual nature. I see that as being way too optimistic and trusting in the powers that be, and even if that was able to be enforced they still collect insane amounts of data from companies like Google and Facebook.
The fight to regain our privacy might actually prove impossible overall, but it is still worth trying to fight, or at the very least cap the endless hole that erodes what little privacy we have. Remember, Big Brother is always watching – better hope he isn’t watching you.
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