Day one of the privacy debate saw a mostly predictable response from the media to the thought of increasing protections for privacy, with journalists, Fairfax legal advisers and the TV lobby assuring us all that there was no need for any such protection. Apparently your privacy is safe in the hands of Australia’s mainstream media. It’s not, of course. Ask Pauline Hanson, John Della Bosca, Troy Buswell, David Campbell and innumerable celebrities.

Ah, but comes the response, they’ve chosen to be in the public eye. They’ve chosen to play the game. Politicians “have to take the rough with the smooth,” said Tony Abbott.

It may be true about celebrities for whom publicity is a tool of the trade. Politicians are a different story. The exposure, or purported exposure, of the private lives of those individuals, with no public interest of any kind, will only further diminish the number of people willing to enter politics. Then again, since the media thrive on beating up on incompetent pollies, the continued fall in the standards of public officeholders is just what many in the media would want (cf. NSW, 2007-11).

You could also ask the many victims of tabloid television programs – usually low-income earners easily demonised in the cause of formulaic stories. But unlike politicians or celebrities, they lack the resources or knowledge of how to fight back against the media. No one particularly cares about their privacy.

None of the responses addressed the basic question of what any media outlet has to fear if a public interest exemption applies to any right to privacy – especially a right that, as the Australian Law Reform Commission recommended, is set to a very high test for plaintiffs. That is, what are they doing now that isn’t in the public interest?

Annabel Crabb, in a dispatch from her sickbed, suggested your privacy was more at risk from Google or location tracking apps than from the media. Well, a lot of 6.42 neighbours from hell might disagree, but Crabb thereby entered an interesting area of the privacy debate.

The penny is finally starting to drop with citizens that their personal information is highly valuable. In this, they’re way, way behind governments and corporations. Governments have long known the importance of personal information — thus the millennia-old tradition of the census, by which people are forced, at the threat of fines or gaol, to tell the government detailed information about themselves, ostensibly to provide better governance.

And political parties have long been aware of the need to compile accurate demographic and political maps of each electorate, compiling as much information as they can on databases on each voter — databases that still remain outside the restrictions of the Privacy Act in Australia. The major political parties have an entry in their databases on every single one of us, but you’re not allowed to find out what it says.

The media have long been in the personal information business as well. Not merely do we peddle it, but we try to compile it to better sell eyeballs to advertisers. Traditionally that’s been done through voluntary means –reader surveys, ratings diaries and then in-home metering. Newspapers still struggle to work out who exactly their print readerships are.

The internet, however, opened a whole new era of personal information. And, strangely, it wasn’t the traditional media that saw the opportunity best, it was digital natives in companies like Google, Amazon and Yahoo who understood that a  search function could be the portal to a new world of personal information that was both granular, right down to an individual’s personal tastes as expressed by what they searched for and clicked on, out to population-level aggregation. Thus Google’s rise — inevitable, in retrospect — as an advertising giant. The big content aggregators didn’t so much cut the traditional media’s lunch on content, as on personal information.

This extends to non-content information. Your online habits reveal a lot about you. When did you go online? How long for? How long did you spend at a site? When did you log on to a social networking site? Did you log on to two social networking sites at once? Who are you friends with on Facebook, whom do you follow on Twitter? Even without knowing what you are saying or reading online, enough of this information over time starts breaking down even well-guarded online anonymity.

Much of this remains voluntary: Facebook offers you shiny things, like games, in exchange for your personal information, which is then on-sold to people who want to sell you things. Gmail offers you a free, anonymous email service in exchange for firing ads at you based on what you’re writing. Some of it is not voluntary. No one has a say in Google Earth, which allows you to find and inspect the outside of the home of anyone whose address you can find.

If someone is, say, game enough to volunteer a personal view on the carbon price to the media, about how they’ll do it tough, it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to track down where they live and examine the swimming pool in their backyard or the Foxtel dish on the roof or the SUV car out the front. But Google at least now offers encryption for searching, which doesn’t diminish its own capacity to harvest your data, but does reduce the capacity for involuntary third-party access to that data.

This is a key distinction: the privacy intrusion of new media is mostly voluntary — however foolish one might be to put a lot of personal information in the hands of a creep like Mark Zuckerberg — and you get something for it. Moreover it’s a subtle intrusion, not a public one. The point of Google getting your personal information isn’t to distribute it to the world, because that diminishes its value. The point of getting your information is to keep it on-sell it to companies that can’t get it for free.

When the traditional media invade your privacy, hundreds of thousands of people know about it.

Nonetheless, Crabb is correct to the extent that privacy needs to be seen on a broader spectrum than merely the mainstream media, which specialises in one type of very public assault on privacy. That spectrum includes the huge new media data mining operations that power some of the biggest corporations in the world, and it also includes governments around the world, which are in the midst of a ruthless counterattack against online privacy, including our own, which has apparently taken a paint-the-Harbour-Bridge approach to extending the powers of ASIO to spy on us.

In that context, a statutory right to privacy is one very small shield against a vast effort to find out everything about you.

Peter Fray

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