Telstra: Storing data for potential surveillance by US intelligence. Photo: James DaviesTelstra agreed more than a decade ago to store huge volumes of electronic communications it carried between Asia and the US for potential surveillance by US intelligence agencies, in a secret agreement with the FBI and the US Department of Justice.
On Friday, Telstra was refusing to say whether it had similar data retention agreements with other nations’ intelligence agencies, including those in Australia.
Australia’s other major telco, Optus, declined to say whether it stored data for potential surveillance by US, or Australian, authorities.
Under the previously secret US agreement, Telstra has been sending all communications involving a US point of contact through a secure storage facility on US soil that is staffed exclusively by US citizens carrying a top-level security clearance. The data includes the content of emails, online messages and phone calls.
Under the November 2001 agreement, signed when Telstra was 50.1 per cent government-owned, the FBI and Justice Department also demanded Telstra ”provide technical or other assistance to facilitate … electronic surveillance”.
The Herald has confirmed that as recently as March 2011, the agreement was still operational. Telstra has declined to answer detailed questions about it.
The revelations come as the British and US governments reel from the leaking of sensitive intelligence material detailing a vast electronic spying apparatus being used against foreign nationals and their own citizens.
On Friday the Greens called for Telstra to disclose all details of the contract, labelling it an ”invasion of privacy and erosion of Australia’s sovereignty”. Karl Reed, an adjunct associate professor of computer science at La Trobe University, said the agreement was a serious concern. ”An Australian corporate entity providing critical infrastructure is acquiescing to demands of a foreign country. What would Telstra have done if it was China asking?”
The contract was prompted by Telstra’s undersea telecommunications joint venture called Reach. When it sought a cable licence from the US Federal Communications Commission, the DoJ and the FBI insisted on a binding security agreement.
The contract does not authorise Telstra or law enforcement agencies to undertake surveillance. But under the deed, 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.
The US facility had to be staffed by US citizens ”eligible for appropriate US security clearances” who ”shall be available 24 hours per day, seven days per week, and shall be responsible for accepting service and maintaining the security of classified information”.
The document was signed by Douglas Gration, a barrister who was then Telstra’s company secretary and official liaison for law enforcement and national security agencies.
He told the Herald he could not remember much about the agreement. ”Every country has a regime for that lawful interception,” he said. ”And Australia has got it as well.”
In 2011, Reach was restructured, giving Telstra control of most of the undersea cables. Telstra notified the DoJ and the FBI of the detail of the restructure.
Telstra spokesman Scott Whiffin said the agreement was required under US domestic law. ”It relates to a Telstra joint venture company’s operating obligations in the United States under their domestic law. We understand similar agreements would be in place for all network infrastructure in the US … Here or overseas, carriers are legally required to provide various forms of assistance to government agencies.”
Optus spokesman Joshua Drayton would say only: ”Optus handles all of its customer information strictly in accordance with its legal obligations under Australian law.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.