Cloud Act Agreement Signed by U.S. and Australia, but at What Cost?

According to a press release from the Department of Justice, the United States and Australia entered into an agreement under the CLOUD Act on December 15, 2021. The Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data (CLOUD) Act was signed into law in 2018, by then-President Donald Trump, under the pretense of giving more authority to nations to supposedly fight serious crimes. Crimes purported to be targeted by the act include terrorism, child pornography, and other heinous acts. The act had support from the U.S. Congress, the Department of Justice, and major Silicon Valley companies like Google and Microsoft.

This agreement with Australia is the second country that the United States has created since the CLOUD Act was signed (the first being the United Kingdom). Speaking on the agreement, U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland gave the following statement:

“This Agreement paves the way for more efficient cross-border transfers of data between the United States and Australia so that our governments can more effectively counter serious crime, including terrorism, while adhering to the privacy and civil liberties values that we both share.”

That last statement is puzzling, as many activist groups like the ACLU, the EFF, Amnesty International, and other civil liberties-minded organizations have long opposed the CLOUD Act. In their view, the act is nothing more than yet another way to circumnavigate legal channels and increase an already ravenous global surveillance apparatus among the Five Eyes nations. Like many types of legislation before it (such as the PATRIOT Act) the CLOUD Act, in the view of privacy activists, increases the likelihood of civil liberties abuse in the name of stopping crime.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation summed up the privacy activist viewpoint in a lengthy blog post back when the CLOUD Act had yet to be passed by stating:

“The CLOUD Act would give unlimited jurisdiction to U.S. law enforcement over any data controlled by a service provider, regardless of where the data is stored and who created it. This applies to content, metadata, and subscriber information – meaning private messages and account details could be up for grabs. The breadth of such unilateral extraterritorial access creates a dangerous precedent for other countries who may want to access information stored outside their own borders, including data stored in the United States.”

Regardless of likely outcry from civil liberties activists, the Australian government appears to be pleased with the agreement. Australian Minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews stated that, “… by strengthening both nations’ ability to fight crime, and giving our law enforcement agencies more efficient access to evidence, we’re ensuring the safety, security, and prosperity of our citizens.”

To world governments and Silicon Valley, the CLOUD Act is a necessary tool to fight crime. As with anything involving privacy rights, the truth may be much more complicated and nefarious.

Featured image: Flickr/ell brown



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