As you read this on your phone or computer, your ISP is doing more than just giving you access to the site.
It’s logged that you’ve visited Crikey’s IP address and how long you spent here, along with some other information like your phone number and location if you’re reading on mobile.
And then it will keep that information for two years in case an Australian government agency wants to view it for any reason, due to the mandatory metadata retention becoming legislative law earlier this year.
Your movement anywhere can now be shared with more than an ISP or telephone provider. It might be the police, ASIO or any number of Australian government agencies currently scrambling to access the data that now doesn’t require a warrant. Thanks to the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance, this information can be shared with the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand.
Perhaps you’re comfortable with this, perhaps you’re about to reason that if we aren’t doing anything wrong then we have nothing to hide.
Digital Rights Watch decided to test that common rebuttal on Professor Gillian Triggs, former president of the Human Rights Commission and someone who will never be on Senator George Brandis’ Christmas card list.
Monday night in a packed theatre for Melbourne Writers’ Festival, all of Triggs’ personal data was displayed on a giant screen behind her, former senator Scott Ludlam and broadcaster Vanessa Toholka.
Triggs sat and politely smiled as her email details were displayed. From subject line alone, we learnt that she’s looking for a good deal on stationery, where she will deliver speeches, the groups of which she’s a part. Her phone details showed she was in Melbourne, and we could tell who was calling her and, based on their number, surmise what their phone calls were about.
Admittedly, Triggs is a well-known public figure, which means this information could be easily deduced. But does that mean it should be and what is the impact when it is someone who isn’t a public figure, like you (remember, ISP is still running the clock on how long you’re taking to read this article)?
It became slightly more uncomfortable when the crowd laughed at the revelation Triggs had applied for a Seniors Card. It’s symbolic of what happens when the banal details of our day can be released: everyday and perfectly legal activities look very different when viewed by others.
Ludlam took that further, quoting Glenn Greenwald’s response to the common “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve nothing to fear” argument. In those moments he simply asks the person to hand over their email password. Feeling uncomfortable with that? Why? You’ve done nothing wrong, surely?
In fact, for anyone who’s ever handed their phone to show a friend a photo and hoped to the heavens above they don’t start scrolling through their camera roll, the distinction is clear: people have a right to choose what information they share without someone taking advantage. And what if that person comes across a legal but embarrassing photo? Do you think they’re capable of not blabbing what they saw everywhere?
No matter how decent (well …) the government may appear, sometimes it is not that capable. Like its inability to conduct a census, protect the names and home country details of 10,000 people seeking asylum in Australia, placing them in danger, or accidentally releasing your Medicare data and your Centrelink data (not just once, twice!) … Let’s get straight to the point: the Australian government wants all of your data but has a very public record of not keeping it private.
Part of this is because it is the government who are defining rules and keeping it “in house” or at the “discretion of ministers”, decried by Triggs as something that would never happen in Europe where the court system keeps things honest or in the US, which has a Bill of Rights.
So, with the government operating beyond the law and stockpiling your data in the cyber equivalent of a sieve and an opposition that hasn’t yet learned that word’s definition: who is going to help you regain your privacy?
Scott Ludlam made it clear: “We need a revolution”.
Part of that is making the cost of accessing your data higher and harder by using encryption wherever possible either through the use of a VPN (Virtual Private Network) or encrypted messaging apps like Signal.
But the other part is standing up and making a ruckus. Put pressure on politicians — the ministers and your local representatives — and let them know to get their hands off your phone and laptop. Learning about your digital rights isn’t complicated, and learning how to protect them and push for change is even easier.
*Amy Gray is a Melbourne-based writer and member of Digital Rights Watch.