Privacy fears swirl around surveillance law overhaul but top bureaucrat instead warns of capitalist data trawling
A top federal bureaucrat seeks to quell fears a massive overhaul of Australia’s outdated electronic surveillance laws will result in “Big Brother” style observation of everyday citizens, saying the new system should be far more worthy of public trust than corporations gathering and selling data about individuals.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute on Thursday held a web-based panel discussion on the laws, which Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews described as “overly complex, inconsistent and … outpaced by rapidly evolving technology” in launching a public discussion paper last month.
The panel heard authorities were grappling with new, ever-evolving encrypted and anonymised communications technologies and the like, while the current “patchwork” surveillance system was hard to understand, covering 1000 pages of legislation, and with 35 different warrants and authorisations.
Many observers posted questions to the forum expressing concern about whether the new laws would be obtrusive and lead to “overreach” by authorities.
But Department of Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo said the laws targeted only the worst offences such as terrorism, child exploitation and organised crime, and people who were not engaged in such crimes would not worry about being on the radar of authorities.
“Proper scrutiny, authorisation and oversight of the use by the state of the most intrusive powers that the parliament makes available … surveillance, interception and monitoring of citizens and non-citizens alike, combined with supporting our agencies to do what we ask them to do, which is keep us safe from harm, it’s very important that we get that duality of balance right,” Mr Pezzullo said.
“We can actually, in the design of the legislation give … everyday Australians confidence that it would be highly unusual for any of their data, any of their devices or indeed any of their engagements with their devices through data to be the subject of surveillance or interception.”
He said a suggestion of a “mass ingestion of data for a store-and-use-it-later basis” had crept into the debate on the issue.
“I’d like to think that most everyday citizens can go about their daily business presuming … that if they’re not involved in criminal activity … that they should feel a very high level of confidence that their communications, their devices, their interaction on the internet, is in fact not the subject of any kind of government scrutiny … whatsoever.”
While there was substantial concern about privacy around the powers, it was strange many people didn’t appreciate the vast amount of information gathered by “surveillance capitalism”, Mr Pezzullo said.
“We shed more of our own personal and sometimes quite intimate data in ways that we probably don’t fully understand or appreciate,” he said.
“Surveillance by private companies … we have complex terms and conditions, we have mods that are built into software updates so you don’t fully understand where the data is stored, scraped, utilised, onsold et cetera.
“The more immediate, pressing problem for the citizenry is to actually understand what companies are doing with that personal and sometimes intimate data … turning your privacy, your self, your preferences, your attitudes, who you are, into the commodity.
“Everything the government will do will always be purposely designed … much more restrictive than that.
“We don’t want, as citizens ourselves … that sort of ubiquitous sense of being under the gaze. But that’s in fact what’s happening in our private lives.”
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