There’s little doubt the Australia I was born and raised in has died. When I was a lad, living on a busy main road in Melbourne’s east, we used to leave the key in the Lockwood on the front door to make it easier to get in and out. We played footy in the front yard during winter, cricket on the driveway in the summer and routinely spoke to anyone who wandered past the front fence while we played – and those were often interesting interactions as we lived just a few doors away from the local pub!
That was 40 years ago and times have changed. The pubs are almost all gone, replaced by pokies venues and bistros. We’ve been conditioned to be wary of strangers and I don’t see that many kids playing outside anymore.
But something else has changed. We’ve become suspicious and paranoid about the whole world. There have always been ‘bad’ people. And it’s true that the internet has lubricated the machines of evil used by child predators and organised crime. But the collective paranoia of successive governments is creating (or perhaps has already created) a society where we are prepared to give up our personal privacy in order to make ourselves slightly more secure.
My favourite literary and cinema genre is the dystopian future. Not post-apocalyptic, but what happens when a functioning society either falls apart or becomes so transformed as to become almost a parody of its former self. I read Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World back in high school and both influenced me immensely.
I recently read Robert J Sawyer’s Hominid trilogy. In this, humans managed to accidentally connect to an alternative earth where Neanderthals became the dominant species. Among the many differences between the human and Neanderthal societies was surveillance. Every Neanderthal was implanted with a device that recorded everything they did. There was no privacy.
There was almost no crime (hooray!). The author, very cleverly, made it obvious that while there were huge benefits in that level of mass surveillance, the costs were immense.
Last year, the Federal Government passed laws mandating telecommunications companies retain telecommunications metadata. That’s not the content of messages, but data about the communications. For example, a phone call wouldn’t be recorded (without a warrant) but who the call was between, when it was made and how long it lasted would be recorded.
At the time, we were told this law was essential in the fight against serious crimes. The Attorney General’s department’s FAQ says:
“Metadata plays a central role in almost all serious criminal and national security investigations, which is why it’s so critical that our law enforcement and security agencies continue to have the ability to lawfully access this kind of data in connection with their investigations. For example, child exploitation investigations rely heavily on access to metadata as perpetrators primarily share information online.”
There are some important things to note in this explanation.
- The focus is on serious crime and national security investigations.
- It’s critical for law enforcement and security.
- The access to the data is lawful.
- The emotive use of child exploitation to justify the need for this law.
So, you’d expect only law enforcement and security agencies investigating serious crimes to have warrantless access to the data, wouldn’t you? Well, more than 60 agencies have access to the data.
Now, we have six states and 10 federal territories, with local police forces. There’s the Australian Federal Police, ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) and ASIS (Australian Secret Intelligence Service). By my estimations, that makes about nine police and security agencies. You can add perhaps another handful involved in military intelligence.
That leaves a pretty large list of other agencies. You can read the full list here. But, among some of the more ‘interesting’ agencies are a number of Federal Government departments such as Health, Human Services, Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the National Measurement Institute. State agencies such as Harness Racing NSW, Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Queensland also have access.
Don’t forget, access to this metadata does not require a warrant from a court.
Late last year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) announced that the census being held on 9 August 2016 will not be anonymous. It’s important to remember the official name of the census is Census of Population and Housing.
Every census, since the first one taken in 1828, has been anonymous. Although you submit your responses in an envelope that identifies you, that envelope would be separated from the census responses and destroyed, effectively anonymising the data.
Rather than being used in the aggregate, which is how past census data was used, a data point can be directly attributed to a household.
The ABS says names and addresses will be kept, but that identifying information will be obscured by ‘anonymous keys’. No identifiable, private or confidential data would ever be shared with third parties or seen internally by ABS employees.
If the ABS can’t see and use the data, why keep it? This makes no sense unless the government has an ulterior motive.
For almost all of my adult life, I’ve believed that our governments have, by and large, acted in what they believe to be the country’s best interest. I haven’t always agreed with the policies of both sides of politics, but I have always been able to see reason in their actions.
This latest move, to keep personal information pertaining to the census, has no other purpose that I can fathom other than to profile individuals. This year, online forms will be the default.
The government says the data will be safe. I’m pretty sure the US Government thought the same of its federal employee data until it ended up in the hands of Chinese hackers last year following the massive data breach at the Department of Personnel Management.
No system is 100 percent secure from the efforts of a determined and well-resourced adversary. And let’s not forget government employees have been caught accessing data they should not have over 60 times during 2012 and 2013.
You may decide not to complete the census as a protest. Well, not completing the census will result in fines of $110 per day for non-submission.
The Australian Privacy Foundation outlines some things that people may have contemplated during the 2011 census to avoid their data being recorded. Of course, I’d never advocate breaking the law and I suggest that if you are contemplating some form of protest against this year’s census to make sure you do so lawfully and in full understanding of any potential consequences.