Big Brother is not just a reality television show
Years ago, while visiting Leningrad, as St Petersburg was known in the Evil Empire days, I was approached by a svelte young Russian beauty who asked me if I would smuggle some of her private letters out of the Soviet Union to her friends in Western Europe.
Telegraph, telephone and the mail were closely monitored by the totalitarian state’s notorious KGB, especially when the addressee was in the decadent West.
Being a typical risk-taking undergraduate – I’d just swum in the half-frozen Neva River from the Peter and Paul Fortress on a dare – and eager to poke a stick in the Kremlin’s watchful eye, I happily obliged my lovely if oppressed new friend (and, yes, I would have done it even if she looked like a babushka instead of Natasha Poly; but it helped).
Fast-forward 20 years after the collapse of the USSR and the Gillard Government is proposing that a copy of your email traffic data and web-browsing activity be kept in case it wants to have a peek at it some point down the track.
Under this creepy new rule, impracticality rather than principle would seem to rule out Australia Post noting with whom every Australian corresponds by regular mail even if, unfortunately for the law’s proponent Attorney-General Nicola Roxon, fewer and fewer Australians use snail mail anymore.
But if the Attorney-General goes the way she’s signalling, there is no reason in principle at least why your postman won’t be a spy. What would we have thought if, in the pre-internet days, the government dared make such a proposal?
And indeed why not make it a requirement that all booksellers keep a record of all their customers purchases. Come to think of it, Amazon does this already. But nobody is forced to do it by the government. And that’s the difference.
The Gillard government wants to conscript private companies to act as its agents prospectively to record and keep tabs on the correspondence and reading activities of millions of innocent Australians. The only difference between Roxon’s proposal and the KGB was it wants the private sector to do the work.
This should be strongly resisted.
Disappointingly, the Coalition has so far stayed mainly on the sidelines of this vital debate. Shadow Attorney-General George Brandis has said that he will ‘‘examine the issues carefully’‘.
Being secure in one’s ‘papers and effects’ is as fundamental a right as free speech—also under attack by the Gillard Government. “Data retention” as it’s euphemistically called, should be a first principle issue for the Coalition as dear to its heart as the Gillard government’s cynical attacks on press freedom.
Brandis is no doubt concerned that there are legitimate law enforcement needs to access telephone calls, data transmission and the mail, especially in the fight against international terrorism, organised crime and child pornography. But investigators are currently able to obtain a court-issued warrant, upon the demonstration of probable cause, to a court of competent jurisdiction to monitor such activity. And ASIO, along with Australia’s allied intelligence agencies, are able to access a vast array of international communications in the war on terror.
The proposal comes at a time where more and more of almost all of our daily lives are coming under remorseless scrutiny until, like Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four, whether through our “telecreens”, footpath surveillance cameras and now even our mail, we will always be watched.
But the argument is not that we live in a totalitarian state – not yet at least.
Rather, leaving aside the concern that such a massive trove of private information would be highly susceptible to hackers or organised crime – if the Pentagon can’t keep the likes of Julian Assange from gorging on state secrets, what chance have ordinary citizens? – as the Institute for Public Affairs has noted in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry notes, Roxon’s data troll “would be a continuous, rolling, systematic invasion of the privacy of every single Australian, only justified because a tiny percentage of those Australians may, in the future, be suspects in criminal matters. Indiscriminate data retention is an abrogation of our basic legal rights. Data retention regimes make internet users guilty until proven innocent”.
There are many ways that police power can be enhanced to catch criminals simply by sacrificing our liberty. Free societies must resist that temptation.
The Government should go back to the drawing board and reconsider this unwarranted and draconian invasion of privacy and look for alternative ways to achieve its goals. The Coalition should demand that it does so.
Alan R.M. Jones was an adviser in the Government of John Howard.
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