Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

2219 words

Life in the goldfish bowl

2 December 2015

Why have watershed data retention laws failed to excite more opposition? Three factors might help explain our acquiescence, writes Gavin J.D. Smith

Imagine a world where what you do and say is always recorded. A world where prying eyes and ears track your movements and tap your conversations. The rulers have scant regard for those who wish to keep secrets, and view those who demand privacy and anonymity with suspicion. The ruled masses are programmed to self-reveal and to make themselves routinely visible to the gaze of an unseen and unknown audience.

This is not the fictional Oceania of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the totalitarian regime of Big Brother dominates. It is not the fabricated world of The Truman Show. And nor is it the real experience of postwar East Germany, where the Stasi exploited a vast network of informants and staffers to generate files on one-third of the population. No, the world described above is contemporary Australian society.

The landmark Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act 2015 came into effect on 13 October 2015 after receiving bipartisan support in both houses of parliament. This data retention legislation has created one of the world’s most elaborate, but predominantly unchecked, surveillance dragnets, permitting the mass monitoring of all Australian citizens as they lawfully (or unlawfully for a small minority) go about their daily lives.

And yet there has been little public dissent. Yes, journalists responded with concerns about how these measures might obstruct investigative journalism by compromising the anonymity of whistleblowing sources. They were also uneasy about the fact that the laws could criminalise journos who act on intelligence leaks or put the activities of the intelligence community under the microscope in the public interest. Yes, there were sporadic print and social media warnings, and short-lived GetUp! petitions that focused on the practical loopholes in the legislation, the chilling effect on democratic values and the general ineffectiveness of the measures in both economic and operational terms.

But apart from these voices, there has been a surprising dearth of anti-surveillance sentiment. The data laws have simply not divided the nation like the Australia Card Bill 1986 did. This despite the global reach and impact of Edward Snowden’s recent revelations, and many high-profile instances of discriminatory or harmful data practices by representatives of the state and by corporations.

There have been no mass public protests on the streets of Australian towns and cities. No demonstrations at Parliament House, and little in the way of a national conversation on the issue. There have been no Banksy-style activist murals and no anti–data retention lobbies to speak of. This seems a curious state of affairs given the exceptional powers that have been bestowed, and their encroachment on civil rights like the right to be anonymous, the right to be forgotten, the right to be left alone and the right of free expression.

So how might we make sense of this situation, where the majority of the Australian public is seemingly indifferent to the fate of their data? Is it the result of an Orwellian conspiracy where critique has been muted by the strategic actions of the state and market? Perhaps to some limited degree. But this would imply that the Australian public is simply a dupe of an unscrupulous ruling elite, which is evidently not the case. A more likely scenario is that our acceptance of performing life in an electronic goldfish bowl is as much the result of coincidence as collusion. A closer look at three contributing factors might help explain our acquiescence to data retention laws.

The first, most obvious, factor is the heightened level of public anxiety about crime and terrorism. Media reports frequently describe foiled terror plots and depict in lurid detail seemingly random acts of predatory violence and criminality occurring on the streets. The atrocious nature of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris – victimising innocent citizens in publicly cherished spaces – and the moment-by-moment “glocal” coverage of events on both broadcast and social media have coalesced to generate widespread alarm about the power of politically motivated cells to mobilise acts of destruction without forewarning. Governments tend to seize upon such incidents – and the hysteria their disproportionate coverage prompts – to justify aggressive measures and to pitch the need for exceptional powers in what they present strategically as “a time of crisis.” NSW premier Mike Baird, for example, used the recent fatal shooting of police accountant Curtis Cheng by a fifteen-year-old boy to demand a change in control order legislation, requesting a lowering of the age threshold to fourteen.

Political leaders deliberately exaggerate the “unprecedented threats” confronting the Australian public for maximum effect, at a time when the prospect of considered deliberation is least likely. It is no coincidence that former prime minister Tony Abbott doggedly flagged the importance of data retention reform in the immediate aftermath of the Sydney cafe siege, when the Australian public were shocked and fearful:

What I think is clear is that we do face a very real threat from people who want to do us harm and who invoke this death cult ideology as a justification. And that’s why we put forward the metadata retention laws, that is why we are determined to deal with them as quickly as we can in the New Year. The assurance I give to you and to every Australian is that this government will do whatever is humanly possible to keep you safe. That’s what we will do, because nothing undermines a society, a community, an individual, than any sense that you are not safe in your own homes, in your own streets.

Politically charged dogma like this, which portrays the state as the saviour of peace and supplier of order, is grossly distorted: the average Australian is, statistically, much more likely to experience harm on Australia’s roads or in Australia’s homes than on its streets from random acts of terror or criminality.

This type of doctrinal commentary shocks the public into compliance with what might be considered, in other contexts, as excessive and arbitrary powers. It deflects attention away from state failings in policy. And it distracts us from questioning the role of society in creating the divisive conditions responsible for disaffecting sections of the community and prompting some to participate in acts of violence. And yet the highly public and emotive nature of this violence makes it an easy medium to govern through – to create a climate of unease that legitimates the plea for further executive powers while simultaneously accruing electoral favours for being seen to be tough on “them.”

The second factor accounting for our indifference to data retention is our ingrained familiarity with data-based visibility. We organise and live our lives through data. The ordinariness of data helps to make it appear unproblematic. Most of us have grown up in a context where the bureaucracy – and the bureaucratic record – is the dominant form of social organisation. Participation in modern life entails liaising with various institutions that collate detailed informational files from our exchanges. We are continually asked, in both the real and the online worlds, to provide credentials that verify our identity. This is perhaps best illustrated at the international airport terminal, where travellers are required to consent to a multitude of intrusive security checks – inspection of luggage and documentation, body scans, explosives tests – before they are permitted to embark. Cumulatively, these organisational events accustom people to being seen and instil a perception that monitoring is a customary ritual that advances efficiency and supports our interests and wellbeing.

It is nigh impossible for the average Australian to envisage an alternative future that is not permeated by flows of data and experiences of visibility. Our bureaucratic instruction commences from the moment of birth, when we are issued with our certifying digits, and continues throughout our lives, during our education (consider registers, rules, time management and performance metrics, for example) and subsequently in the workplace. Time-poor consumers of public and private provisions are seduced by the convenience of supplying data for quicker responses and customised products. But supplying data is also made a condition of the service. We exchange anonymity and invisibility for access to travel, welfare and medical care. People become so accustomed to data-sharing that they lose the capacity to construe it from a critical perspective and recognise its powers.

The third factor explaining our relative obliviousness to data retention laws is our cultural fascination with watching and being watched, especially in an age of networked social media and reality television. We increasingly use networked media technologies to consume information, to construct identity, to communicate, to track bodily health and performance, and to dispense personal insights. We are actively encouraged to perform self-revealing behaviours as part of these engagements, and to perceive data as a pleasurable, insightful and facilitative commodity. Networked media technologies like the smartphone – and the data they create – become mere “companion” extensions of the body. Such devices ingrain a habit that normalises data-sharing practices.

Individuals are turned into both agents and subjects of surveillance as they gaze upon the intimate lives of friends and followers in Facebook posts or Twitter tweets, and as they are exposed to the remote scrutiny of those virtual audiences to whom they are digitally bound. The spectacular success of reality television shows like Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! more than demonstrate the nation’s fascination with witnessing the intimacies, banalities, adversities and idiosyncrasies of other people’s lives. And the obsession with celebrity further normalises the experience of being visible. The industry of celebrity has made the personal scrutiny of prominent figures a national pastime, in the process glamorising both the practice of voyeurism and the act of courting attention.

This point is exemplified in the recent case of an Australian self-styled social media sensation who renounced her “networked self” after developing what she described as harmful addictions to self-promotion and audience attention. Nineteen-year-old Essena O’Neill had spent three years strategically building up a global following of 612,000 on Instagram by circulating pictures of herself in intimate postures, often with brands paying to be purposefully positioned as part of the image. But the data she was contriving ended up defining her sense of self, initially validating it and then subsequently hindering who it was she sought to be. In her social media swan song she satirically notes the labour and effects of manipulating her body image to satisfy the gaze of the audience:

Please like this photo, I put on makeup, curled my hair, tight dress, big uncomfortable jewellery… Took over 50 shots until I got one I thought you might like, then I edited this one selfie for ages on several apps – just so I could feel some social approval from you. THERE IS NOTHING REAL ABOUT THIS.

So do people not care about privacy anymore? Have we entered a post-privacy age? No, I don’t think so. If you formally invite people to consider the value of privacy, they consistently report that private life – and personal space – is an imperative quality of a healthy democracy. Average citizens would likely feel unease if they were ordered to remove the blinds from their windows, and they would probably recoil at the thought of being covertly filmed 24/7. Our acceptance of data retention laws does not stem from a devaluing of privacy per se. It is more an effect of habit and ignorance, which are, as Orwell recognised, susceptible and manipulable.

It is evident that most people develop habits of data-sharing, and a relatively uncritical and unimaginative understanding of how their data might convert from asset to liability at the behest of a networked, and thus plural, audience. People’s appetite for data-sharing, for maintaining a virtual presence, for deriving knowledge from data and for conducting their lives through the medium of data trumps their desire to feel disconnected or to remain hidden. But it is equally the case that people in today’s information-rich societies have no choice other than to participate in data-sharing. According to the CIA’s chief technology officer, we are all “walking sensor platforms,” shedders of “digital breadcrumbs” that evidence our character and motives. In effect, our dependence on networked media technologies has been popularly determined as much as it has been imposed by design.

It is also clear that people don’t understand what data is, where data ends up, and how it can be read and acted on. Many don’t care about these issues, as they feel they are doing nothing wrong or have nothing to hide. But, of course, this adage is only as stable as the regime in power. History has shown that what is acceptable and normal in one context can become unacceptable and abnormal in the next. If Australian criminal and anti-terrorism law is anything to go by, where new statutes appear at an alarming rate proscribing what were once considered to be mundane behaviours or objects, more of us could soon have something to fear. But perhaps the bigger fear for libertarians is that we don’t in fact have more to hide. •

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Before the move: Martin Bowles, secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, appearing before a Senate committee in Canberra in May last year. Gary Schafer/AAP Image

Before the move: Martin Bowles, secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, appearing before a Senate committee in Canberra in May last year. Gary Schafer/AAP Image