Aus­tralians beware, you’re un­der in­creas­ing sur­veil­lance

Dubbo Photo News - - Emergency report - Greg Smart

IF you have noth­ing to hide you have noth­ing to fear.

Since 9/11, this phrase has been reg­u­larly used by govern­ment in an­nounc­ing and jus­ti­fy­ing in­creased pub­lic sur­veil­lance – both phys­i­cally and dig­i­tally – in the war against ter­ror­ism.

Law en­force­ment agen­cies around the world have been af­forded in­creased pow­ers to mon­i­tor the pub­lic by in­creas­ingly covert means; as tech­nol­ogy drives us on­line, we leave a dig­i­tal foot­print that is ripe for sur­veil­lance, and laws are passed to fa­cil­i­tate this.

These laws are al­ways pro­moted as be­ing for Na­tional Se­cu­rity, and es­sen­tial for Pub­lic Safety.

Any crit­i­cism of in­creased sur­veil­lance laws by civil lib­erty ad­vo­cates is dis­missed by govern­ment as soft­ness on ter­ror­ism. The La­bor Party in op­po­si­tion are so tightly wedged on the is­sue of Na­tional Se­cu­rity they are powerless to reign in the gov­ern­ments’ de­mands for in­creased sur­veil­lance pow­ers.

Which gets us to the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion with Peter Dut­ton and the Depart­ment of Home Af­fairs.

Dut­ton is the all-pow­er­ful tsar of this ‘su­per-port­fo­lio’, and has wide rang­ing pow­ers over bor­der pro­tec­tion, im­mi­gra­tion, fed­eral law en­force­ment, in­tel­li­gence agen­cies and cy­ber se­cu­rity. He has been the main cheer­leader for in­creased laws to mon­i­tor the ac­tiv­i­ties of Aus­tralian ci­ti­zens, and al­ways quick to claim Na­tional Se­cu­rity as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Whilst the Aus­tralian pub­lic will­ingly and naively vol­un­teer their per­sonal in­for­ma­tion onto so­cial me­dia, Dut­ton’s depart­ment (ob­vi­ously with the ap­proval of the govern­ment as a whole) is sin­is­terly push­ing for mass pub­lic sur­veil­lance via the Identi- ty-match­ing Services Bill 2019 and the Aus­tralian Pass­ports Amend­ment (Iden­tity-match­ing Services) Bill 2019.

These laws are for the cre­ation of a fed­eral data­base from pass­port, driv­ers’ li­cence and pho­to­graphic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion held by ev­ery fed­eral, state and ter­ri­tory govern­ment. The clue for what this cen­tralised pho­to­graphic data­base will be used for is in the names – iden­tity match­ing.

Us­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, se­cu­rity agen­cies will match fa­cial im­ages from pub­lic and pri­vate sur­veil­lance cameras to the data­base dur­ing law en­force­ment op­er­a­tions, un­der the guise of counter-ter­ror­ism.

On top of the 75 sep­a­rate pieces of na­tional se­cu­rity leg­is­la­tion passed since 9/11, this is a fur­ther in­cre­men­tal ero­sion of our rights to pri­vacy and free­dom.

So, whilst I have noth­ing to hide, I am fear­ful of where this de­sire for mass sur­veil­lance is lead­ing us. Given the govern­ment has dif­fi­culty ex­plain­ing any tech­ni­cal as­pects of sur­veil­lance (re­mem­ber Ge­orge Bran­dis try­ing to ex­plain metadata), trou­ble with the in­tegrity of its data­bases (My Health data breaches), and can avoid any trans­parency for Na­tional Se­cu­rity rea­sons, I think my fears are jus­ti­fied.

And the tech­nol­ogy it­self is proven to be in­ac­cu­rate and racially bi­ased. A 2019 study by MIT in Bos­ton proved the fa­cial recog­ni­tion soft­ware de­vel­oped by com­pa­nies like Amazon, IBM and Mi­crosoft have up to a 34 per cent er­ror rate when try­ing to iden­tify a darked skinned fe­male, ver­sus a one per cent er­ror rate when iden­ti­fy­ing a white skinned male.

These com­pa­nies sup­ply this ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence-based soft­ware to po­lice and law en­force­ment agen­cies. In an ex­am­ple of how per­va­sive the in­flu­ence of the ped­dlers of this tech­nol­ogy is, de­spite the flaws in the tech­nol­ogy, Amazon wants to write the US govern­ment fa­cial recog­ni­tion laws.

Mis­sion creep is another is­sue. Whilst claimed to be for counter-ter­ror­ism pur­poses, it is not hard to en­vis­age iden­tity-match­ing be­ing used to iden­tify wel­fare re­cip­i­ents and pro­tes­tors. Es­pe­cially as the pro­posed leg­is­la­tion in its cur­rent form lacks safe­guards and over­sight against ex­pan­sion in the use of the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion data. Only a few weeks ago Dut­ton in­sulted the con­cept of due process by call­ing for anti-min­ing pro­tes­tors to be “pho­tographed and pub­licly shamed”, locked in gaol and de­prived of wel­fare pay­ments.

What is to stop the data get­ting into the pri­vate sec­tor? Can the govern­ment sell the data to IT and so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies, or pri­va­tise the data­base al­to­gether?

Then there is the ob­vi­ous hypocrisy of some mem­bers of the govern­ment crit­i­cis­ing China for us­ing the same tech­nol­ogy to iden­tify Hong Kong pro­tes­tors and racially pro­file Uyger peo­ple.

It’s also worth not­ing the fed­eral govern­ment has re­cently spent $470,000 on tri­alling fa­cial recog­ni­tion in five schools, os­ten­si­bly for record­ing chil­dren’s at­ten­dance. And whilst In­dus­try Science & Tech­nol­ogy Min­is­ter Karen An­drews said the de­vel­op­ment of this tech­nol­ogy should not be “nec­es­sar­ily limited”, Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Dan Te­han promptly backed away from us­ing fa­cial recog­ni­tion in schools.

Ob­vi­ously the $470,000 could have been bet­ter spent some­where else. And per­haps they should have been aware of the re­cent pro­hi­bi­tion by the French govern­ment on the use of fa­cial recog­ni­tion role-mark­ing in French schools?

Even the home of high tech, Sil­i­con Val­ley, dis­ap­proves of the in­va­sion of pri­vacy, with San Fran­cisco be­com­ing the first US city to ban fa­cial recog­ni­tion us­age, cit­ing the un­re­li­a­bil­ity of the tech­nol­ogy and in­fringe­ment on per­sonal lib­erty.

Here in Aus­tralia we are sleep­walk­ing into a state of sur­veil­lance, where we have for­feited our in­formed con­sent to the use of our image, whilst at the same time con­sid­ered en masse to be ca­pa­ble of com­mit­ting crim­i­nal acts.

Without want­ing to be clichéd or trite, it’s very 1984 and smacks of Big Brother. It also ticks off sev­eral el­e­ments of the fas­cism play­book – ob­ses­sion with na­tional se­cu­rity and law and or­der, dis­tain for hu­man rights, and sup­pres­sion of the in­di­vid­ual.

It’s another govern­ment pol­icy that con­strains our civil lib­er­ties that was con­spic­u­ously ab­sent from this year’s elec­tion cam­paign.

This tech­nol­ogy is dan­ger­ous when it both works and doesn’t work – and it has no place in a free and open so­ci­ety.

z Greg Smart lives and works in Dubbo, and is a keen ob­server of cur­rent af­fairs.

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