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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)

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