Ever heard of Stephen Coleman? He’s a lecturer in ethics at Canberra’s Australian Defence Force Academy, and Julia Gillard and Robert McClelland should invite him up to Capital Hill so he can tell them just how ethically bankrupt is the Rudd government’s proposal to allow employers to monitor their employees’ emails in the name of stopping a terrorist attack.

Coleman wrote a cracker of a piece in an obscure referred academic journal called Ethics and Information Technology back in 2006 on this very subject. And one of the most salient arguments he makes against the proposal floated by Gillard this week is that, leaving aside the questionable morality of such a plan, it would in fact do nothing to prevent terrorist activity.

As Coleman writes, before a government “could legitimately infringe upon the privacy of those under its protection by scanning e-mail in an attempt to intercept and read e-mail sent by terrorists, it would need to answer the question of whether such an attempt would have a reasonable prospect of successfully preventing those terrorist activities.”

The answer would of course be no. The volume of e-mail sent and received every day is such, says Coleman, it would be virtually impossible to read or even glance at every e-mail sent. So employers and other authorities would have to search on the basis of looking for keywords, argues Coleman. Once again, the chances of success in this endeavour would be “incredibly low”, says Coleman. Would be terrorists are not dumb, and they would simply ensure they do not use terms which would be picked up by such a search.

Given that the monitoring of employees’ emails in these circumstances is such a worthless exercise then, says Coleman, “a government would not be justified in infringing upon the privacy of those under its protection by engaging in such activities, since the potential gain of such government activities would not be proportional to the harm likely to be caused by this infringement of rights.”

Stephen Coleman’s analysis highlights just how intellectually vacuous and dishonest is the proposal now being considered by the Rudd government.

Peter Fray

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