analysis I’m the first to admit that I have not followed the #NatSecInquiry (or the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security’s Inquiry into potential reforms of Natural Security Legislation, to use its formal name) all that closely. There were a few reasons for this, but the point is I was listening yesterday. And my god was it terrifying.
If you thought that the political response to Charlotte Dawson and Robbie Farah getting upset at mean people on the Internet was concerning then, as the band said, “you ain’t seen nothing yet”. I tuned into the live stream around lunchtime. Just as the NSW, South Australian and Australian Federal Police commissioners were giving evidence to the hearing.
Their attitudes towards basic principles of civil society – such as innocent until proven guilty and an individual’s privacy – were downright terrifying. NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione can be singled out as the one seemingly most willing to throw away the provisions surrounding how police can access information about a person and the oversight that goes along with that in order to make his job easier.
According to the evidence (submission? I’m slightly unsure of what the correct terminology is here) he presented to the hearing, getting a warrant issued from the judiciary in order to monitor a suspect’s electronic communications was simply too hard for him to be bothered doing.
That’s right. Following existing procedures in place to ensure police collect evidence in a legal manner was just too hard. So they want unrestricted, unmonitored access to what everyone is doing online, regardless of whether they are suspected to have committed an offence or not. Just trust them, they said. Yeah. No.
Further to this, the commissioners were seeking access to encryption keys for services like Skype and Blackberry so that they can directly access data on those services without having to ask either the companies involved or, again, get a warrant issued from the judiciary.
Yet in spite of this, the police commissioners could present no hard evidence showing how a data retention scheme would assist them in solving crimes. There were no studies, no statistics, no nothing. Scipione did offer one anecdote, however, and a couple of hypotheticals to back up his assertion that grossly invading people’s privacy would be beneficial.
They then went as far to dismiss a German study – which demonstrated that a data retention scheme did not have any affect on prosecution rates – as “absolute rubbish”. Sure, it may only be one study, made in a different continent, but to dismiss it because you have an anecdote that proved nothing and some hypotheticals is just abysmal. It’s worth noting that their dismissal of the study went largely unchallenged by the hearing’s panel.
There was one highlight in all this, however, when Andrew Wilkie asked why do police need access to an individual’s online activities when most of the information that they would use in evidence when prosecuting a crime can already be accessed, via warrant or subpoena, through the databases and services that a suspect uses. For example, you do not need to monitor a user’s online activity to see what they are doing in their bank account when that information can be sought from the bank itself with a court-issued warrant. The police commissioners were hesitant to admit that this was, in fact, the case instead making Kermit arms and saying a variety of things about paedophiles and “won’t somebody think of the children?”
But it soon turned out that those asking the questions were really no better than those answering them. The questioning of online rights/free speech groups presenting later in the day was by far more vigorous than what the police commissioners were put through (at this point, I’d quote from the Hansard transcript to better prove my point, but I’m told that won’t be available for week or so.Thanks, government).
Many on the panel could not understand how there is a difference between a system that a person chooses to use that tracks what they do (say, Fly Buys) and a proposal for the government to track everything they do online. Apparently, an individual exploiting their agency to determine who or what is allowed to have a record of their selected activities is something that is a concept that they just cannot grasp.
There was also an avoiding of questions surrounding how such a massive repository of personal data could be secured not only from misuse by those with (potentially) unrestricted, unaccountable access, but also from being accessed via hacking or leaking. The prevailing attitude seemed to be that having at least some level of data retention is inevitable. This should not be the case.
The potential for this inquiry to result in legislation that creates a new, powerful surveillance state is very, very real. The creation of new policy and presupposes everyone is a criminal and places masses upon masses of personal, private data in the hands of police, with little oversight, who are supposed to just trust not to misuse and abuse should frighten every single person in this country to their very core.
And given the level of ignorance amongst our government and the clear, agenda driving of those leading law enforcement and intelligence organisations to have access to this data, there is no reason not to think that the implementation of a data retention scheme will not put us on the road to a very dark place.
There is absolutely no way that we, the electorate, should allow this to happen. This inquiry, and any proposals that stem from it, should be looked at very closely and any expansion of powers of the state put forward should be fought.