The context for this discussion is the Australian government’s new anti-terror proposals included in the National Security Amendment Bill that Parliament will vote on soon. One of the provisions of that bill is that telecommunications companies will be forced to keep your ‘metadata’ for up to two years. This is called ‘data retention’.
Exactly why Australia wants to emulate America in creating a police state where people fear their government and fear to speak out is unclear. But that’s what’s happening. The government assures us that ‘metadata’ is not the content of your communication (your texts, your emails, your chats, and your web camera footage). It’s merely information about how, when, where, and for how long you use a particular device to access the internet.
That’s almost certainly wrong. There are plenty of stories out now that show that workers at the US National Security Agency have, in fact, used retained data to review the contents of individual Americans’ internet and mobile phone use. And not to combat terror. But to spy on ex-girlfriends or rivals.
That kind of abuse of a program can be managed. But that’s not the real threat here, although it’s creepy and shows you that, given enough time, government bureaucrats will tend to abuse their power at the expense of citizens. But the real issue is missed by most people.
In fact, read the comments on the ‘metadata’ stories on Australian websites and you find two common refrains. First, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Second, if the retention of this data and its review (subject to a warrant) prevents just one terrorist act and saves just one life, it’s worth it.
For the latter comment, the NSA hasn’t shown that its data rendition program has actually prevented any terrorist attacks. In the meantime, the agency vacuums up phone calls, text messages and emails at an astonishing rate. But really, is the ‘solution’ to terrorism the creation of a permanent police state where the apparatus of surveillance has a chilling effect on what you say and do in your public and private life?
If you permit the government to create a surveillance system like this, you no longer live in a free, liberal society. No one can be trusted and everyone must be monitored for the safety of all. Do you really want to live in that world?
The first comment, that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear, also misses the point. The law can change. Let’s say, in 10 years, a radical party takes over Parliament and decides that atheists are terrorists, or that if you don’t believe in global warming you’re a ‘denialist’ and likely to be subversive. Using retained data, the prosecutors could mine it to find out who broke the law in the past (even though it wasn’t illegal then) and charge you with a crime.
If you think this sounds fanciful or impossible, think again. First, you can bet that once it gets its hands on the data, the government is going to keep it for a lot longer than two years. It’s going to keep it forever. Second, the abuse of metadata by the police state to convict people of thought crimes is exactly the road we’re on today.
In fact, we’re probably much further down it than we realise. It would not surprise me if the NSA already had a great deal of ‘metadata’ from Australians, even if the Australian security agencies were unaware of this. The NSA hasn’t exactly been asking for permission to do these things. And through facilities in Darwin, Geraldton, Canberra, and Pine Gap, Australia is up to its eyeballs in collaboration with the NSA.
You may think you have nothing to hide. But the government might disagree. And that’s assuming they mine the data and find something about you they don’t like. Let’s not even discuss the possibility that the data can be fabricated and you can be framed, all quite by the book.
In the future, everything you say, read, write, watch, or listen to can and will be used against you. And perhaps not in a court of law. That’s the ultimate goal of a police state anyway; to cow the people into mental submission. To enforce thought compliance through the implied threat of violence or prosecution.
The other perplexing thing about the argument that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, is that it presumes the government has a right to know these things. That’s backwards. From the Magna Carta to John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government to the US Declaration of Independence, the foundational premise of Western liberal orders is that a man has rights before the formation of a State.
Those rights are natural, or given by God. A man can surrender some of his natural rights in exchange for forming a government constituted to pursue certain ends. But the presumption of liberty lies with the individual. If you’re a free man, you don’t have to prove to anyone that you have nothing to hide.
And for those that say you already give this information to Facebook and Google, so why not the government, there is an easy answer. I consent to give that information to Facebook and Google. It’s my choice. I know they’ll use it. But they’ll use it to try and sell me something.
When the government gets your data without your permission, it’s not going to try and sell you anything. It’s going to try and find out if you’ve done anything criminal. And if it’s not criminal now, it might be later. To defeat terrorism, it was necessary to destroy liberty.
I’m on holiday next week. But while I’m away, I’m going to set up a petition you can sign telling the government to stay out of your data. If you disagree, you’re probably going to forward this note to ASIO. Please do, but be aware that they’ll probably keep a record of it. In the meantime, comments, support, outrage, or reaction can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
For The Daily Reckoning Australia