government surveillance

Michael Keenan doesn’t like being portrayed as Big Brother, it seems.

In a recent op-ed for our colleagues at The Mandarin, the Human Services and Digital Transformation Minister — and former counter-terrorism minister — lamented about the planned myGovID scheme:

I fully expect that we will face some disapproval from certain commentators as we move forward with this project over the next six months. Every major government reform inevitably faces some level of opposition when challenging the status quo. In the case of technology initiatives, calls of ‘Big Brother’ are often associated with progress.

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Keenan was particularly grumpy about the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Fergus Hanson, who in October published an excellent, lengthy and forensic analysis of the government digital identity schemes, their flaws and their intersection with government biometric data collection schemes. Hanson has also given evidence to the Intelligence and Security Committee on the government’s current digital identity and biometric data bills before parliament. Hanson’s involvement represents the entry of a new participant into the online rights world, given ASPI has kept a relatively low profile previously on such issues.

The “everything is Big Brother according to you lot” argument is a lazy rejoinder to people who actually care about the balance of power between citizens and their government. But if he’s genuinely interested in avoiding the perception that the government has an Orwellian agenda, there are a number of things Keenan and his colleagues could do, which can be divided into two broad categories:

Take privacy seriously and be seen to take privacy seriously

  • Impose a warrant requirement for any agency that wants to access metadata.
  • Extend “journalism information warrant” processes to lawyers, doctors, MPs and any other profession for which confidentiality is a professional requirement.
  • Remove exemptions from the Privacy Act for political parties so that their colossal databases on every voter are exposed to scrutiny.
  • Establish a genuinely independent and dedicated Privacy Commission.
  • Remove the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ draconian powers to enter Australians’ premises and demand private information.
  • Stop attempts to sneak through powers for Home Affairs to demand biometric information.
  • Require corporations to divulge all personal information obtained on Australians on request, backed by punitive fines.
  • Apologise to Andie Fox for releasing her personal information to punish her for criticising the government, and sack all officials who targeted her.

Turn back from the road to a police state

  • Stop targeting ABC journalists whose reporting annoys the government.
  • Drop the Nazi-style “papers please” proposal put forward by Home Affairs.
  • End the absurd war on encryption undertaken purely for the sake of security theatre.
  • End the use of domestic and foreign intelligence services for commercial espionage.
  • End the use of the AFP to track down public service whistleblowers who embarrass politicians.
  • Drop the malicious prosecution of Witness K and Bernard Collaery, apologise to them and compensate them for five years of harassment, and call a royal commission into the illegal bugging of the Timor-Leste government and the role of Mark Dreyfus, George Brandis and Christian Porter in harassing them.

Ambit claims? Over the top? You see, minister, this is the absolute minimum a government as profoundly discredited on privacy as yours would need to do to ever be taken seriously. From the moment Tony Abbott was elected, this so-called liberal government has waged a war on privacy the like of which has never been seen before, frequently with the support of the so-called “opposition”.

Your government has demonstrated a hatred and contempt for privacy — except of course when it serves your interests, which has meant it has also been the most secretive government in Australian history, devoted to keeping as much of its activities as possible away from scrutiny.

So don’t blame Fergus Hanson, or privacy advocates, or anyone else because you look like Big Brother. You applied dedication, huge resources and considerable effort to behaving like a government of thin-skinned, glass-jawed bullies eager to lash out at anyone who had the temerity to criticise you or embarrass you. It’s all on you.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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