Saturday, 5 May 2018


“Dorothy, in the land of OZ, a land of freedom and democracy, a dangerous path leads away from the yellow brick road. Under no circumstances should you tread this path as it will lead you into the clutches of a wicked witch who lies in wait for those too blind or stupid enough to lose their way. If she gets hold of you, you will face a life of always being told what you can and cannot do and what you should and should not think. If you don’t be good and obey her she will punish you!”

So far in this blog we have come across a number of classic vintage science fiction movies that have raised the issue of threats to personal privacy, liberty and democracy. Science fiction films have often since explored what happens when too much power is handed over to the State, its institutions and big corporate entities. It is a scenario that is all too real for those who live under the rule of totalitarian, repressive and one-party regimes whereby compliance and compulsion is a central feature of governance.

In a western democratic country like my own country, Australia, people are indeed fortunate to be able to express their views in many formats and can at least exercise their right to select who governs them. Sure, there are many shortcomings in our system, but many people world wide would give their right arm to be able to think what they wish, say what they want to say (short of inciting hatred and violence), see what they want to see and organise their lives in their own way.

The danger for democratic nations, however, is the slow and inexorable eroding of our liberties, freedoms and personal privacy by governments, bureaucracies, institutions and powerful corporations. I’m not saying that there is some evil secret cabal plotting and conspiring to enslave the populace as some conspiracy nutters would have us believe.

Rather, the diminution of our freedoms and personal privacy is part of a process that almost takes on a life of its own – as if it were somehow organic and one in which all of us individually and collectively play a part.

At the heart of this process is POWER – the acquisition of power, the holding and exercise of power and the acquisition of even more power. It is this power that is concentrated in the hands of a power elite via the use of force, corruption, manipulation or even the eager compliance of those being governed.

In my own country, certain recent developments have been taking place which if permitted to be implemented without stringent oversight and adequate checks and balances could have serious implications for our citizens’ personal privacy and freedoms. Will we be too apathetic to care? Will we know if and when the wool is being pulled over our eyes?

Read on for more.....

New powers proposed for Australia's cyber security agency, the Australian Signals Directorate?

An email from the Home Affairs Department Secretary to the Defence Department was recently leaked in which there was a suggestion involving increasing the powers of our foreign intelligence collection agency, the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD). This would involve the ASD gaining access to emails, bank records and text messages.

On the surface it might be reasonably suggested that such a proposal would "support law enforcement agencies in fighting online cybercrime and cyber-enabled threats." In today’s climate, it might be felt that few would argue with that aim.

Of course, the national government would be quick to deny there were any plans to expand the ASD's powers to enable it to spy on Australian citizens and that there would be no need to expand ASD's powers as the current laws would safeguard the privacy of Australians.

Under our laws, the ASD cannot gather intelligence on Australian citizens.

In addition, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation can investigate citizens with a warrant.

So, should we feel reassured? Can we rely on the Power Elite’s justifications and reassurances? Are our laws resilient enough to prevent their intrusions into our lives?

Bio-metric Technology 
Government Surveillance

There is considerable concern being expressed about a proposed facial recognition system and the identity-matching services bill giving the Home Affairs super ministry powers that are too broad and far-reaching.

The fear centres around the need for safeguards to prevent the possible “illegitimate and disproportionate uses” of facial recognition technology. There is also concern the bill allows access to information by the private sector and local governments.

Once again, the intrusion into people’s privacy and acquisition of their personal data by the government can easily be justified on the grounds of national security and the need for adequate law enforcement capabilities.

On the surface it seems reasonable to permit federal and state police real-time access to such things as passport, visa, citizenship and driver’s licence images for a range of criminal investigations through a system to be run by the Home Affairs department. 

What if, however, by giving government agencies the ability to identify a face in a crowd it results in CCTV footage being used to prosecute “low-level unlawful conduct” such as jay-walking. Instead of merely detecting a would-be terrorist reconnoitring a site for a potential attack, the proposed technology could be employed for a range of activities that the authorities regard as unacceptable.

Without appropriate checks and balances, it would be too easy for our society to normalize government surveillance of citizens and accept the notion that limits to the right to privacy are the price we have to pay for effective national security and law enforcement data sharing.

Our compliance in matters such as the use of identity-matching technology comes about when government and private-sector services make this a requirement for our participation. In this, we are led to believe that we have given our “consent.”

For those intending to obtain a driver’s licence, give a thought about what use will be made of the information you provide, including your biometric data!

Co-operate…. Or Else!

In my country, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) along with the national government would like its citizens to co-operate by answering the questions included in official ABS surveys like the national census.

What about if you don’t wish to provide the information requested? Well, our legislation allows the Australian Statistician to direct you, in writing, to provide such information. This means you are legally obliged to do so.

Failure to comply could result in a fine of up to $180 per day for each day you fail to provide the information, after the deadline specified in the written direction, until the required information is provided.

Sure, we know the reasons behind this five-yearly snapshot of all Australians and how it is supposed to aid in the effective provision of services, planning and formulation of government policy.

Then again, there’s that nagging feeling of government intrusion, of compelling people to comply. Added to this there is the question of the length of time that data is to be held and whether or not that data can be matched to individuals despite assurances to the contrary.

Perhaps we should just trust our government’s assurances even though it has been known to leave bundles of classified information in cabinets and safes that have been mysteriously relocated in op-shops and retrieved (and presumably thoroughly perused) by the national broadcasting service!

We’re Baaaaack!

Not satisfied with shoving a census form under people’s doors, the ABS is undertaking a survey of income and housing with more detailed data being collected than was the case in the census. Its stated intention is to build a more accurate picture of Australia's economic conditions.

The survey will involve 23,000 households out of the more than 9 million homes in Australia. Participants are randomly chosen for the survey, and guess what? The survey is compulsory for those selected. In other words, some bloody little bureaucrat can enter the home of a “randomly selected’ individual uninvited and compel the person to provide them with the required information.

Legally, 23.000 people (no-one else) will be obliged to provide the information that is requested. Incidentally, those to be surveyed are to provide a table for the surveyors to place their laptops on!

Data collection, retention and analysis in the modern world is more and more becoming a self-generating industry. By hook or by crook our personal information is being levered out of us and our right to privacy is under threat. Information is power and in certain circumstances and in the wrong hands it can be used as an instrument of control.

The Right To Have No Choice But To Choose

Under my country’s bizarre system of compulsory voting the aim is supposedly to ensure that all eligible voters cast their votes and that capable candidates are selected.

Although the right of citizens to choose who will govern their country is an essential requirement for a democracy, if it is implemented by means of compulsion and coercion then it may ultimately defeat its primary purpose and intention resulting in a dilution of democracy.

Just because people are forced to cast a vote does not mean that voters automatically cast a meaningful ballot or evaluate the candidates’ suitability to perform effectively. In turn, neither does this ensure that the most suitable candidate is selected. In fact, compulsory voting may increase the chances of voters casting informal or “donkey” votes.

There is something very hypocritical in the notion of forcing people to vote in a system that is deemed to be democratic. How can infringing peoples’ liberty and rights be seen as being a cornerstone of a democracy? Compulsory voting in a democracy is merely a contradiction in terms.

In Australia, if someone registered to vote in a federal or national election decides not to vote then they are likely to be hit with a fine of $20.00. If, however, they do not vote in a council or local government election, they will be fined about $120.00! Go figure! Why devote time and law enforcement resources to penalize those who have broken such ridiculous compulsory voting laws?

Compulsory voting systems serve to foster laziness in our political system and the spread of ignorance throughout the community. It’s appalling to discover how little is known concerning our own country’s political system and of our nation’s own history beyond the myths and falsehoods purveyed by sections of the media and by self-serving politicians. This is not a sound basis for a properly functioning democracy.

Under a voluntary system of voting it would be crucial that people are educated from a young age about our system of government and our nation’s history so that they become informed voters.

It also ought to be incumbent on our education and political systems to work hard to encourage people to appreciate the importance of casting an informed vote as means of ensuring a meaningful and fulfilling life for themselves and future generations.

Ultimately, being compelled to vote is a violation of our rights and should not have a place in a society that claims to be free and democratic. 

Having the right to decide not to cast a vote can in itself be a form of expressing one's opinion in a democratic manner. Why penalize someone for doing so? Why treat adults as if they were children in need of punishment for wrong-doing?

On the surface, the above examples seem to be quite trivial but taken together they can serve as a warning for any democracy to be vigilant and push back against those forces of power, control and compulsion that may end up eroding our individual rights and liberties – The same type of message frequently conveyed by some of the best science fiction films and stories!

Additional note: It has been reported that there is a proposal from our friends in the Home Affairs ministry for police to have the power to randomly stop and ask anyone at an airport for their identification.

This can be done irrespective of whether or not someone may be perceived to be acting suspiciously. The adoption of such measures could still raise the possibility of innocent people being profiled on the basis of their race or other criteria.

One would have thought that nations have fought wars and shed blood to oppose such violations of people's civil rights.

Of course, such measures are considered under the guise of guaranteeing people's safety and security. However, who is to say that once they are established in one sector of society, they will not eventually become a "normal" state of affairs throughout the whole of society together with the implications for individual rights and freedoms?

We need to be careful lest we create a world that would once have formed the basis of many a Sci-Fi nightmare!

©Chris Christopoulos 2018

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