If you remember a couple of years back when Jill Meagher was killed a key part of the evidence leading to her killer’s arrest was some CCTV footage. The CCTV footage came from within a shop on the street. At the time it was deplored that it was the only source of CCTV. There was nothing in the street, no cameras fixed to poles or traffic lights, no infrastructure for it, which was seen by many as a failure in government policy. Not surprisingly there was a clamour for more CCTV on the grounds that it would help to apprehend criminals, and quite possibly prevent criminal acts. Again, unsurprisingly, the government jumped to it, promising greater CCTV coverage.
Most people had the knee-jerk reaction that something must be done, and if it is CCTV then so be it. That was understandable in light of a crime that shook the city and captured their imagination like few times before. It was a tragedy, why not do something to prevent a recurrence of it?
At the time I was in the minority view. I was uneasy with the concept of being on camera. I’m not shy, I just like to think that I can go about my business privately. What I do is my business, and if I choose to share it then that’s my decision – but in this I had no say. It was a petty concern perhaps, but was emblematic of a sense of personal liberty. Those liberty’s have been eroded over time, and whilst I don’t yet believe we’re a surveillance state, once you take that first step – selling the idea and putting the infrastructure in place – then where it leads is out of our hands.
Yesterday the federal government announced that it was backing away from the 18C amendments, which is good news. At the same time they announced their intention to impose a mandatory data retention scheme in Australia, which, by and large, seems to have passed without significant comment.
This is no small thing. In fact it’s bloody big in so many ways. For a start it’s a bloody expensive, incredibly exhaustive and far-reaching scheme, for minimal benefit. Secondly, and much more importantly, it’s another very significant erosion of our civil liberties.
So what does it mean? Right now much of the trail you leave of your communications and interactions are uncollected and haphazard. There might be phone records of who you called and for how long, but basically so that your phone company can bill you for it. Likewise when it applies online.
Data retention goes beyond that. It basically imposes on your phone company, your ISP, and son, the legislated requirement to make and retain records of everything you do within their space. Who you call, where you’re at, where they’re at, what emails you send and receive, what websites you visit, what you post to Facebook or Twitter or to blogs like this, and so on. This is in the name of national security, the modern-day rogue’s justification of robbing you of your rights.
The implications for the service providers are huge. Where once they provided a service, they must now effectively audit it as well by collecting and storing the metadata on everything you do. That’s an incredible imposition on them, which will translate into significant dollars. Naturally that will be passed on to you and me.
There are also great implications for the freedom of the press (what remains of it). A journalist has long been entitled to protect his sources short of a court order. That protection will now be gone, and the records of his communications will be available to the security services, and government of the day. What’s the bet they’ll be responsibly used? The few remaining legitimate journalists should be outraged, and fighting this tooth and nail. There are grave implications for our democracy.
For the rest of us it is very concerning. This is not a society I want to be part of, no matter how it is justified. We are entitled to our privacy. At a minimum that’s at risk. More seriously once we have given the green light to the industrial collection of data about our activities then there’s no knowing how it will be used. This is one genie you can’t put back in the bottle.
The danger is that the information collected will be used against us in ways in was not meant to be. In theory only the metadata is collected, but in itself that is revealing – my Twitter handle, my Facebook ID, the sites I interact and contribute to, and so on. It’s a short step from having that detail to following up on the content I post and respond to.
It’s easy to see how I might be categorised by my rants here, and on Twitter, and so on. That’s my right to rant and rave. It’s my right to be wrong if it comes to that. That’s freedom of expression. But what if it’s used to target me? What if I am identified as a left leaning loud-mouth critical of the government of the day? What if it means they open a file on me, just because I exercise my right to express myself? What if it goes further than that?
I’m not saying those things will happen. I’m saying they can happen if legislation like this is allowed to pass. My liberties are my birthright. I claim the right to say what I want, go where I choose, as long as I break no laws, and free of being tracked and observed in doing it. Our privacy is our right. It shouldn’t be taken from us.
People need to wake up. The danger in allowing these, and similar measures, is in the incremental erosion of the basic rights we took for granted for so many years, until the day comes that those rights barely exist. This is happening by stealth, tucked away in the back pages or buried amid an avalanche of other announcements. It’s justified in the weasel words of governments and self-serving security agencies looking to further encroach into your life and mine. Am I paranoid? I don’t think so. There’s enough in the independent press to prove that we are being surveilled more than ever before, and with a reach few of the totalitarian states of the past could have imagined.
It has to stop. We have to stand up, but it becomes harder every day.Too many of us have become be-numbed, put to sleep by politicians who don’t want us to think, and a compliant media more interested in making money than reporting the truth. We need to dissent again.