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Sep 5, 2012

National security hysteria, the fastest-growing crime in Aust

Wild claims about cybercrime are a key tool in inflating spending on cybersecurity and expanding the powers of governments, like the latest proposal for two-year data retention.

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Yesterday Attorney-General Nicola Roxon attended the Security in Government Conference in Canberra, a gathering of industries that make money from national security theatre. Her speech touched on proposals currently before the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and appeared to support the proposal for two-year data retention.

This was at odds with the Attorney-General’s Department discussion paper, which merely put forward data retention as a proposal on which the government was seeking views. That is, having gone to the effort of establishing an inquiry into extensions of national security powers, an effort that entailed some wrestling with the powerful JCIS, Roxon has simply pre-empted the committee’s inquiry, hearings for which kicked off this morning in Melbourne.

How well that goes down with people such as Kevin Rudd, George Brandis, Andrew Wilkie and John Faulkner remains to be seen.

This is one of the most important issues in Australian public policy now. The proposals put forward by AGD are extraordinary in their scope and amount to a systematic invasion of every Australian’s privacy. AGD has failed to put forward a coherent justification for most of them, and indeed failed to even “discuss” data retention in its “discussion paper”. Labor’s Attorney-General appears to be supporting the worst of them. And the mainstream media, with the honourable exception of Fairfax’s Dylan Welch, is failing to provide appropriate coverage.

If there was appropriate coverage, certain claims might not be taken at face value. Like this: yesterday, Roxon unveiled the results of a government-commissioned study on identity theft. It was, the Attorney-General said, the fastest-growing crime in the country, and one in four Australians had experienced it or knew someone who had.

Now, there are quite a few contenders for the crown of our fastest-growing crime. In 2005, retail theft was the “fastest-growing property crime”. According to The Daily Telegraph, wildlife smuggling is one of our fastest-growing criminal industries. Today Tonight claims petrol theft (!) is our fastest-growing crime. And don’t be confused by international comparisons — apparently people trafficking is the world’s fastest-growing crime. And last year Cisco predicted that filesharing, which according to the copyright cartel already costs hundreds of billions of dollars, will double by 2015. Sounds pretty fast-growing to me.

So where does this claim about “fastest-growing crime” come from? The Australian Federal Police, who’ve been repeating the line for years. In 2005, then commissioner Mick Keelty claimed “[i]n Australia identity crime is regarded as one of the fastest-growing crime areas, with Austrac estimating that in 2001-2002 it cost our country more than $1 billion”.

And where did they get it from? Well, in 2007, the AFP told a Commonwealth-state committee “recent international research that indicates identity crime is the fastest-growing crime type, possibly running close to 30% growth, therefore in Australia could currently be inflicting a $4 billion annual loss to the community.”

And yes, in 2004 the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission were making similar claims about the United States. But — alack! — ID theft has since lost its mojo over there.  There are several other contenders for fastest-growing US crime now — mobile phone theftemployee theft; the chair of the Congressional Judiciary Committee claimed child p-rnography was the fastest-growing crime. In fact, by 2010, the FBI was admitting to Congress ID theft wasn’t even a priority for it any more.

So, here we are nearly a decade on in Australia, with our politicians still recycling lines based on long-outdated American claims.

Anyway. I’ve digressed from a digression: what does the study unveiled by Roxon actually say? It concludes, based on a sample of 1200 people, that 7% of people had experienced a form of ID theft, and a further 17% of people reported “it happened to a person I knew”.

What did ID theft involve? The list is: loss of credit card or debit card; via internet through virus or bad software; via internet through a scam like an email about an inheritance or lottery win or on a social networking or dating site; mail theft; loss of document like passport, Medicare card, driver’s licence or birth certificate; telephone.

So, get some malware, have your mail nicked, or lose your driver’s licence, or have someone try to use your credit card details and you’re classed as a victim of ID theft. Incidentally, it’s great to see malware doing double duty — not only is it helping to inflate ID theft statistics, it also helped to inflate “cybercrime” statistics this time last year.

But even with such a wide-open definition, the study could only manage 7% (which, incidentally, matches American results to similar questions). Why did they include the thing about happening to someone you knew? That tells us nothing about the incidence of the crime, unless you don’t think your methodology is very sound in the first place. It looks a lot like they simply wanted to bulk up the results to get as big a number as possible.

By comparison, let’s look at some figures from the ABS. In data released earlier this year for 2010-11, only 0.2% of the population had experienced actual identity theft. When you include credit card theft, the incidence rises to 3.98%. That represented a rise from about 3.1% in 2007. So, if identity theft is the fastest-growing crime in Australia, we needn’t be too worried.

The report also included “expectations of identity theft risk” (inevitably, people think it will increase; when was the last time people thought crime would decrease?), and invited people to explain why. Amid all the predictable reasons were some choice ones, such as “criminal numbers rising/Third World people have access to us now” and some “because internet” ones, but 9% of people thought ID theft would increase because it “has been publicised more”.

Of course it has been publicised more. Gatherings like the one opened yesterday by Roxon exist to publicise identity theft, and cybercrime, and warn of cyberwar and the digital Pearl Harbor and anything else that can whip up a state of fear in the minds of the public and particularly in the minds of politicians and public servants who hold the purse strings on which this industry depends.

Unlike the normal, frequently tense, relationship between rent-seekers and government, when it comes to national security rent-seekers, there’s a cosy union of interests with government. The latter can invoke national security and hysteria over identity theft, or cyber crime, or terrorism, or filesharing, or artificial wars such as the war on drugs, as a pretext to extend surveillance and criminal justice powers and curb the rights of citizens. And corporations, consultants and lobbyists facilitate an environment that encourages them, because the flip side of the hysteria is more funding for national security theatre, more funding for protective measures, more money for cybersecurity, more money for “risk management” programs like the one Roxon devoted part of her speech yesterday to lauding.

So add the war on ID theft to the war on terror, and the war on drugs, and the war on cybercrime, and every other war we’re told we must fight. They’re wars intended never to be won, because that would defeat their very purpose — more money to companies and more power to governments.

*Tomorrow: why “balance” is the big lie of the national security debate (disclosure: Bernard Keane made a submission to the JCIS inquiry in a private capacity)

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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63 thoughts on “National security hysteria, the fastest-growing crime in Aust

  1. Les Johns

    Never other than a Labor voter, I first fell foul of the system one Saturday ‘market in the park’ where Jimboomba Labor manned a booth when an election was pending. Raguse doggedly stood for any seat until he scored a walkover in the then Federal seat of Forde after popular Kay Elson correctly sensed the winds of change and chose not to run. Raguse was approachable but it was while I exchanged idle talk with two booth workers that I became an object of ALP interest and a witness to their m.o.
    I opined how every issue of the Courier Mail presented at least three Labor-adverse articles that an active NLP war-room could pick-up, elaborate on and run with, but, I added, there never seemed to be any follow-up or interest from that camp. The words had no sooner gone with the wind when I was invited to pose in a ‘matey’ photo shoot with the chap’s wife and while I twigged to the ruse and had time to pull out, I thought what the hell, it would dawn on them that I was a harmless oldie filling in time waffling.
    Political people expect the entire voting populace to have a three-week retention limit and feel foiled when one with an adequate memory hasn’t forgotten the surveillance cameras of the ALP and their origin. The photo-happy Special Branch of the seventies openly recorded anti-war protestors as an intimidatory measure and these tactics were adopted with relish by the Labor Party.
    The Beaudesert park adjoins the 12 unit, over 55 year, Qld H.C. flat precinct where I was domiciled and where the chemistry wasn’t a happy mix. Many of the institutionalized residents feared independent thought and earned security of tenure by making regular reports to their individual ‘good friend’ in Woodridge Housing. After being instructed by a QBuild painting foreman to “Shut up you fucking poofter,” when I implored him to tone-down his sky-larking team, my ver batim reportage the next day to two young H.C. women who, by sheer chance were doing annual property inspections, brought the response,”What disgusting language to use before woman. Should be ashamed and etc.”
    Clearly, in their view, it was I who was at fault. As a mature adult, double their age, it was preferred I be contrite, wring my hands and bow and scrape. Wanting a satisfactory conclusion, I failed miserably when my detailed letter to then Minister Schwarten was responded to by his chief-of-staff’s instructions not to write his office again and a three line treatise on how to address a Minister of the Crown. My concerns about the effects of cigarette and road toxins on flat-dwellers and of the much frailer people in the nearby Wongaburra convalescent complex won me no friends.
    A deputation of women from Woodridge H.C. came to my place and insisted I make no more mention of two upwind residents who between them had four active mosquito coils burning throughout last winter presumably to aggraviate a breathing problem. After my partner’s hand-written diary became pivotal in a favourable legal decision against a faux horse trainer and her father, I started such a journal which become a series of A4 on-going notebooks. Discrepancies or tampering with hand-written journals are easily picked-up and are welcome evidence in court.
    After unmasking and disparaging two residents as possible asio planted pimps, I was visited by Qld Police who failed to pressure me into volunteering for a mental evaluation test. That this could happen to me in my lifetime, in Australia spooked me and shut me up briefly, but seeing a writer’s gulag becoming a reality, stirred my ennui and the hell with the consequences. My daily happenings carry much information and accusations against Housing and QBuild staff, car numbers and times.
    There is too much material on hand to be adequately publicised.

  2. Jean W

    The concentration on an Australian government minister’s advertised wellsprings of motivation travelling true through the strata of her family’s history, rather than through her government’s realpolitik is leaving the debate here stuck in news release fairyland.
    Bernard Keane has started by pointing out the theatre, but nobody’s asking cui bono very precisely yet.
    Linda Jaivan’s pointing at the cooption of Australian institutions by the security industry – oh please don’t let’s be straightforward and call it the arms industry even though it is the same list of operators – is worth much more attention than Minister Roxon’s (or any AG’s of the past 15 or more years, or either party’s LibLab, or Green) performance. As is Marilyn Shepherd’s understanding, gained from years of dealing directly with its prime representatives in the Immigration and Police services of our wide bran land, of the unstated wellsprings of anxious, stupid, and often vicious chauvinism pulling successive government strings.

    Calling for resignations of ministers for unreconciled speeches is simply playing those departments’ game these days. As if ministers have any control of those departments. Here we all are looking at Nauru’s tent concentration camps getting dusted off again and nobody’s fingered the source of the propaganda yet.
    My favourite image is of the very relieved Philip Ruddock smiling out in the sun, wearing his Amnesty International badge without the stoop he had developed to try to cover it in his AG public appearances for the 2003 to 2007 government.

    The feds would have no problem scraping and collating all the data collected by, for example, crikey.com.au and all the other third party sites that it’s invited to help it interact with us, and to help it find out about us. Police collect evidence with warrants every day.
    But then they haven’t been interested in what most people are doing, they’re only interested in furthering their toxic world view.

    I’m not Jean W except on the www very occasionally.
    And I use a VPN tunnel whenever I’m accessing the internet because Australia’s always run a fair amount of censorship for no good reason.
    Do the feds seriously believe that criminals wouldn’t at least operate this way on the net, and with much more anticipatory organisation than I as a plain citizen can access?

    I hope Bernard Keane will be able to get access to a few Federal heads of department, and in particular one secretary, for a constructive follow-up to this essay.

  3. shepmyster

    If you believe these proposed changes are dangerous like I do then I suggest you contact the Prime Minister http://www.pm.gov.au/co..act.your.pm immediately and let your feelings be known. Crickey’s great but unfortunately it doesn’t decide what public opinion is, like the “Herald Sun” does. Let them know your feelings aswell, cause if you don’t we’re going to have to live with them and that is something I’d prefer not to contemplate.
    Subject: Nicola Roxton resignation “Data retention”
    Why does the Labor party seem to be so hellbent on losing my vote? Nicola Roxon should resign for even suggesting that this is something we need or want. I can’t for the life of me comprehend why anyone could see this decision as good for anyone. The CIA by their own admission had all the information they needed to prevent 9/11, unfortunately the only thing they managed to do with it was to highlight their incompetence.
    “Power corupts and absolute power corupts absolutely” these proposed changes are dangerous and no amount of placating  will change my mind on this!!! (or false claims, leave that to Abbott)
    For quite some time now I’ve been contemplating (shock horror) a vote for the Liberal Party. Abbott and Climate change are the two things that have kept me on your side of the fence but if these become law it will be the straw that broke the camels back. I can’t in all good conscience vote for a party who believe in censoring it’s citizens through fear. That’s exactly what they will produce. People to afraid to speak up because of their fear of our security services (I’m concerned right now that some idiot could perceive this e-mail as a threat).
    Message to the Prime Minister and Nicola Roxon. I don’t need the Gestapo looking after my interests.

  4. Daemon

    As a member of and quite active in the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties, I am completely confused by the lack of interest the average punter has in privacy.

    Some months ago, we held a seminar in Brisbane looking at the issue, which was addressed by the then president of Electronic Frontiers Australia, Kimberly Heitman, who posited that with the current collection of personal data by Google, we are fast approaching a position where after spending a week searching for a new set of bedsheets, we could walk into Woolworths or any other major retailer, be addressed by name by the concierge and directed to aisle 4, where there is a current special on sheets, pillow slips and bedding in general.

    Whilst at first glance that may not seem terribly important, when you add that data collection to what is being proposed by the government now, you are actually looking at a situation where not one of us has any time in our lives where we are not under the watchful eye of Big Brother, whether Big Brother provides our e-mail or is the one responsible for charging us tax.

    I don’t understand why Australian don’t care enough about their personal information being available to all and sundry, considering the amount of effort that has gone in over the years to managing and maintaining our Civil Liberties, and this issue above all others is a diminution of those liberties. It’s not enough that we don’t have a Bill of Rights or a statute of liberties, and every time somebody suggests that we should have won our wonderful government tells us “you don’t need it, your rights are protected by the Constitution”, which is held to be absolute bullshit, by any commentator asked to speak on the matter.

    I am fast coming to the opinion that the average punter is far too stupid to need a Bill of Rights, but that one should be established for the rest of us who actually utilise our brains on a daily basis, to ensure that our “beloved” governments of all ilk are held accountable for what they do to us in the name of “security”, “identity theft”, “International crime”, or any of the other range of bullshit reasons they come up with when we ask them to explain themselves.

    Roxon should be held accountable for her part in allowing the so-called “security forces” to dictate policy when in fact that policy should be driven by the politicians we pay to represent us, and the spooks and their public service colleagues should be forced to justify this outrageous impost on our civil liberties and human rights.

    I accept and understand that Roxon et al don’t have the balls to manage the Australian Federal police and their mates, but in the name of all that is democratic, we do not live in East Germany, we do not live in North Korea, we are not Chinese. We are Australian. This is our country, not theirs. They are fucking public servants. They do not run this country-much as they may try to prove the opposite. They are servants of the people who are employed to enforce the law. They are not employed to jackboot their way across our civil liberties. They need to be flogged into place and every time they raise their hands for more power they should have to justify every single millimetre of movement.

    The other thing that drives me berserk, is these morons who say “if you are doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about”. Those people should be flogged within an inch of their lives, and sent to live in North Korea for 12 months. Then when they come back, they should be flogged again and put in an immigration detention camp for the rest of their useless lives. They have no right to be part of the open community and if they have such a lack of problem with being watched 24/7 then they should be quite comfortable in their immigration detention camp. also, they should be stopped from reproducing, and if they look sideways at the object of their sexual desire, they should be flogged again and sent back to North Korea… forever, and be made to kneel in glass at the feet of the funny looking little fat guy with the weird head.

    End of diatribe …

  5. Mark Hurd

    XKCD on “fastest-growing”:


    (Sorry first dog, XKCD does get me LOLling more often than you… )

  6. Linda Jaivin

    On the subject of national security hysteria, this item was included in the ‘Opportunities and Competitions’ section of the newsletter of the Australian Society of Authors that came out today:
    ‘Australia’s Security Nightmares Short Story Competition
    30 September
    Prize money of $1000 for a short story to aid the national security community in imagining contemporary threats. The competition aims to produce a set of short stories that will contribute to a better conception of possible future threats and help defence, intelligence services, emergency managers, health agencies and other public, private and non-government organisations to be better prepared. The ASRC competition also aims to raise community awareness of national security challenges, and lead to better individual and community resilience. New, unpublished writers are encouraged to enter the competition.’

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