Anyone concerned about their personal privacy should probably not have gone to Alan Rusbridger’s lecture last night, as he taught us something that has dialled my paranoid suspicions up to 11. At the end of his excellent talk entitled “Liberty and Safety — Where Now for Freedom?”, The Guardian editor invited all the iPhone owners in the audience to open their phones. He then showed us that opening four windows on an iPhone can instantly reveal the address of your most-visited destinations, complete with maps. And these aren’t Google Maps searches — they are places you have actually been to with a sophisticated GPS tracking device in your pocket — your smartphone. For five minutes we sat there, stunned, before collectively turning off location services. If George Brandis now wants to know where I am (unlikely), he will need an eyeglass.

The Guardian has been at the centre of the debate about national security and privacy since June last year, when the British paper published a series of revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden documenting the extent of government surveillance on phone and internet communications. Basically, these stories revealed the extraordinary extent to which the US and its allies had been spying on their own citizens. The stories reverberated around the world, winning every journalistic award possible and triggering an ongoing debate about government surveillance.

Rusbridger said last night that the issues were not just about national security or privacy, but how we live today. Late last year The Guardian and the ABC published related stories about Australian intelligence services spying on the Indonesian president and his wife. Last night he mused aloud as to whether he or then-Guardian Australia editor Kath Viner would have gone to jail for this under the new terror laws. A 20-year veteran of the job, Rusbridger has been threatened with jail more times than the head of the Hells Angels. While he was thinking aloud, Guardian journalist David Marr explained that the new legislation allowed Brandis, the Attorney-General, to make that decision.

Rusbridger said that the paper had long been engaged in tearing down the wall between journalists and readers. The Guardian was able to tell the Snowden story largely because it broke with convention and hired someone who was not technically a “journalist” — blogger/activist/civil libertarian Glenn Greenwald — to help verify the story and get it published.

He showed us a photo of a hard disk in The Guardian’s computers which had been smashed up by the police following a court case brought by the British government. At the time, he told the government that they would simply produce the stories from the US.

“It was almost a point of principle that we kept on publishing,” he said, adding that “if journalism has any value at all, it is that we are independent of power. We must stand aside from power and scrutinise it.”

Some legacy media fear the reach and power of the internet, but it enabled The Guardian to get its scoop out, he said. “What was unpublishable in the UK was publishable elsewhere.”

While governments could lock up a few reporters, the Edward Snowden story showed that it was impossible to keep this issue under control, he said. The revelations “made King Canutes of politicians who think they can stop informed debate on any of these important issues”.

Ending on a cautionary note, Rusbridger quoted from a 2011 essay by Peter Swire, one of the members of Obama’s committee overseeing national intelligence. In it, Swire talks about a “Golden Age of surveillance” and that the ability to “track everybody and anybody is unprecedented”.

Basically, the editor said: “They know more and more about us, and we know less and less about them.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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