The death of privacy

Anthony Caruana
12 April, 2016
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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.

  1. The focus is on serious crime and national security investigations.
  2. It’s critical for law enforcement and security.
  3. The access to the data is lawful.
  4. 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.


3 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. Rico says:

    I’d comment, but they’ll probably start watching us both!

    They’ll probably start watching us just because I wrote that!

  2. Roberto says:

    The legislation that was past forcing companies to store meta data also removed the right the 60 agencies you have referred to from accessing the data. You need to conduct a bit of due diligence when composing articles like this. Those agencies now need to go through a law enforcement agency to access data and this will now place a strain on agencies. It was a sacrifice the Government made out of respect and sensitivity to the loss of privacy.

    Usually around every six months the AFP do a raid and round up a bunch of suspected terrorists. To date aside from one loan nut we have avoided a sever act of terrorism through hard work on behalf of our law enforcement agencies who – yes – as part of their investigation sometimes need to access and intercept personal telecommunication information.

    If you had a sixteen year old daughter who smoked a bong at a party and went missing who’s door are you going to knock on to find her? Wouldn’t you want the police to be able to access her location via a phone she may be carrying if you as the parent give permission for a warrant to go before a judge to find her? A warrant is involved to do that and it’s the Judges responsibility to protect your child’s privacy. Wouldn’t you want as part of that investigation a list of all the numbers she had called/text prior to going missing?

    This country is a proud example of how if the right check and measures are in place – and believe me they are – then sacrificing a small amount of privacy to ensure the greater safety of the public can work. All law enforcement agencies are subject to heavy inspection by Commonwealth and State Ombudsman who act on behalf of the public. Believe me they have wide reaching powers and are authorised to be able to look at and question everything law enforcement agencies do and they do this regularly.

    You need to ask yourself really what do you have to hide? What do you use the internet to do? Look up porn? Accessing and looking at porn is legal in this country. Most psychologists would probably also confirm its healthy. If you look at the legislation in place around intercepting a device or access your data you will find that you have to be doing something pretty bad for the police to be looking at you. It can and is often also used to exonerate a potential suspect. Plus you have consecutive governments that have decimated the size of the APS so there simply isn’t any resources available to be watching and listening to your outrageous exciting life on a mass scale.

    Yet! we all gladly sign our privacy away to any and all corporations. I walked into a shop the other day and looked at a vacuum cleaner and low and behold suddenly Facebook is trying you sell me vacuum cleaners. Now there is a loss of privacy! Imagine you personal data in the hands of one of the most corrupt and immoral organisations on the planet – phamacuitical companies. You want viagra and sphyllius ads popping up on your feeds? Your already there. They are all over you like the zombie apocalypse watching and recording your every move.

    American corporations recently at a conference in Las Vegas started pushing the American government to pass metadata legislation so they could access your private information for their own profit. You need to remove the tin foil from your head for a moment and take a good hard look at New York, Paris, Brussels etc…

    I also grew up reading 1984, Brave New World, Logans Run etc… but those books were written in a time when the internet and ISIS didn’t exist. Wait until drones become more enmeshed in your life. What do you think your going to do if you have a jealous lover who hires a private corporation to follow you because you might be having an affair – the next minute your every move is being drone buged. Go to the police? Private investigations don’t have to answer to an Ombudsman.

    Being concerned about privacy is a series and noble thing and it is normal to be apprehensive of what the Government is doing. But believe me in a modern democratic country the Government is the last thing you should be worried about. Wrap your self tightly in that foil friend because it’s Google thats going to get you.

  3. Macworld Australia Staff says:

    Thanks for the comment Roberto. It’s fair to say we may disagree with each other.

    Somewhere, there is a balance between security and privacy. I don’t think we are even close.

    Already there are reports of metadata being accessed illegally and there have been many cases over the last decade of police officers – often of high rank – accessing data for personal reasons without warrants.

    My trust of governments being able to secure data is very low. And our governments have been disingenuous when to comes to why the collect the data.

    We moved from terrorism and child-sex offenders to social security fraud pretty fast. All are crimes but the metadata retention laws were, we’re told, about national security.

    The retention of personal data in the census is scary. And no good reason has yet been given for it.

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