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Welcome to the spy society

An unlocked brass lock sits on top of disassembled keyboard letters.

13 October 2022

Around the world the surveillance society is no longer George Orwell’s future dystopia but the norm. Wherever we go, whatever we do, whatever we might say we can be seen or overhead by the vast range of surveillance devices open to police and intelligence services. Even in our own homes, privacy is compromised, yet who can do without the internet and the mobile phone, now doubling up as spying devices for corporations and governments?

What most of us know (or think we know) about the capacity of governments to get inside our lives is only a tiny fraction of what we would need to know to get a fuller picture.  In trying to defend our privacy we puny individuals might as well be shaking a spear at a tank. Every government has its Ministry of Truth, camouflaged as a media and communications office, committed to exposing misinformation while disseminating it every day on global and domestic issues.

In Australia, the cluster of surveillance laws passed in the last decade includes the 2015 Data Retention Act requiring phone and internet providers to store customer metadata (identity of subscriber, destination of information, time, date and type of communication) for two years. The information stored is accessible to about 85 “security” (intelligence) and police branches. The Assistance and Access Act of 2018 further strengthened government powers of intrusion. The federal human rights commissioner of the time, Edward Santow, said the legislation “will dramatically increase the access of intelligence and law enforcement agencies to the private communications of ordinary Australians, with implications for our right to privacy and freedom of expression”.

In 2021 the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act of 1979 and the Surveillance Devices Act of 2004, setting out authorization for the installation of such devices, were superseded by the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identity and Disrupt) Bill, which gives the federal police and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) the authority to modify, add to, copy or delete material in a computer and take control of accounts to “frustrate the commission of serious offences online”.

 A “network activity” or “data disruption” warrant can be issued by an “endorsing officer” in the AFP or the ACIC authorising open or covert entry into any premises, the removal of computers and the use of force “that is reasonable and necessary’” to do what is specified in the warrant. In some circumstances, entry and seizure of a computer can be allowed without a warrant being issued.  Telecommunications messages can be intercepted and a “specified person” can be “required” to provide information: how they can be compelled if they refuse to comply is not mentioned.

The authority to intercept can apply to foreign planes and ships outside Australian territorial waters as long as the government of the country where they are registered agrees. All of this depends on who or what is “harmful”, a word that means different things to different people and in the hands of government agencies is a powerful tool for silencing online dissent as well as dealing with genuine threats to society.

Online codes of behavior by the citizenry are regulated by the Australian Commission of Media Authority (ACMA), a unit of the Ministry for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts. ACMA’s remit covers phones (landlines and mobile), internet, radio, TV, management and telecommunications compliance. Its Misinformation and Disinformation Action Group brings together “key stakeholders across government and the private sector to collaborate and share information on emerging issues”.  

During the spread of COVID-19 infections ACMA threw its resources into the struggle to make sure the public was fed the right information. “Access to authoritative and trusted sources of news and information is an important mitigation against misinformation,” ACMA declared. Despite the evidence exposing most of them as prime sources of untruth, ACMA named these trusted outlets as social media postings by “official sources” (governments and the WHO), the news media and the ABC.

The Online Safety Act of 2021 further tightened government control over internet, social media and electronic service providers (including Outlook and Gmail) in the name of combatting “abhorrent” online harm and abuse. Since 2015, Australia has also had an e-Safety commissioner, currently Julie Inman Grant, who was formerly employed for 22 years by Microsoft, Twitter and Adobe.  Aimed primarily at young people, but with its mandate also extended into “adult cyber space”, e-Safety claims to be the world’s first government agency dedicated to keeping people ‘’safer’’ online.  

While taking down child abuse and “pro terrorist” content, Grant told a recent WEF seminar at Davos, “we” are finding ourselves in a place where a “whole range of human rights” including free speech are playing out online and are in need of “recalibration”.  In a recent speech at the UN, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called for a global alliance to censor internet freedom of speech, which she called a ‘’weapon of war” used to spread “disinformation”.  

The online sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material (AVM) “such as terrorism or extreme violent content” have recently been added to e-Safety’s responsibilities.   What intelligence agencies might not pick up can now be drawn to their attention for possible prosecution by ACMA, e-Safety and other agencies.     

Grant’s “we” is not us and whoever does the calibrating, it is not going to be us but “stakeholders” all pulling together. The work of all these agencies is based on collaboration with governments and a multitude of overlapping “multi-stakeholder organisations around the world,” endlessly interacting with and reinforcing each other as they weave a planetary web of surveillance around the rest of us.

Everywhere we go, whatever we do, we are being watched or can be watched and heard by electronic devices poked into every corner of our lives, including the corners we call our homes. “Civil society” and human rights as we once knew them have both been sabotaged. This Australia might be what the politicians and the intelligence agencies want but is it really the kind of Australia that its people want?



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