Proposed mandatory data retention legislation might well see citizens regressing to cold war practices of leaving notes in hollowed-out trees and chalk marks on park benches, in an effort to escape the scrutiny of law enforcement agencies.
Labouring under the assumption that every citizen ought to be surveilled, the Abbott government wants to introduce legislation that will require Internet and phone providers to store meta data for up to two years, for access by law enforcement agencies without a warrant.
Meta data is the footprint that reveals where you have been, but not the content of your visit. I understand it will remain necessary to obtain a warrant to access content. Until it doesn’t.
Aggravating the dodgy nature of this proposed escalation of State intrusion into our private lives, is the lack of a legal definition of meta data in the proposed legislation. This sounds suspiciously like a deliberate omission that will permit a broad interpretation, according to what a law enforcement agency wants to obtain at any particular time.
Attorney-General George Brandis doesn’t know what meta data is, while Prime Minister Tony Abbott likens it to what’s on the front of an envelope, rather than the envelope’s contents. As the two prime movers of this legislation can’t coherently explain what it is actually about, they likely ought to proceed with caution.
Abbott has argued the necessity for the proposed legislation in order to prevent terrorism, crime and Internet pedophilia. Without mass surveillance there will be “an explosion in unsolved crime,” he warned, and added that we all want to stop the horrible offence of child abuse, don’t we, much of which occurs online.
In the absence of a war or a terrorist attack he can manipulate to get him out of the abyss of unpopularity into which he continues to plunge, national security, crime explosions and child abuse will have to do. Abbott is pressuring Labor to bring forward debate on the proposed meta data legislation, rather than take the time needed to properly examine the possible repercussions. These could be many, particularly for journalists, whistleblowers, and freedom of speech.
So what are the effects on individuals and societies of constant surveillance by the state?
As Michel Foucault puts it in “Discipline and Punish:”
He [sic] who is subjected to a field of visibility and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.
In other words if you believe yourself to be constantly surveilled it hardly matters whether you are or not. Your behaviour will be controlled by that belief, and there will be little need for exterior monitoring. You are experiencing …the division of the subject into a judging authority and an accused individual. You will have adjusted your way of being in the world according to the belief that you are constantly visible, and so will regulate your own behaviour by becoming both the observer and the observed. Power over you will function automatically, and corrupt your sense of autonomy.
This dynamic operates whether the surveillance is within the family, or imposed by the State or religions. “God is watching you” has a determining effect on how someone behaves if they believe there is a god who wants to keep them under constant surveillance. In families where boundaries aren’t respected a child or partner can be subjected to surveillance that intrudes upon their sense of independence, and they often self-regulate to accommodate the demands of the more powerful parent or partner, and not according to their own wishes.
Of course as Foucault also pointed out, where there is power there is also resistance, and humans tend to resist external control, but the point is, why should we have to when the will to control originates in the democratic State?
With the proposed new legislation, law enforcement agencies will access without a warrant information about where you have been on your phone and your Internet. They will know who you’ve emailed and when, but not the content of the email. They will know who you’ve sent texts to and when, but not the content of the text. If you get drunk and text your ex they will know where you were when you did it, and how many times. The government believes it is reasonable for it to gather such information about every single one of its citizens, because that is the way it will protect us from terrorism, crime, and pedophiles.
If the only way the State can combat terrorism, crime and pedophilia is to subject every one of its citizens to constant surveillance, then the State is incompetent. It is reckless to trust any government to that extent, but this one?
The State is presuming all its citizens to be guilty until proven innocent, and demanding by law that we relinquish our individual privacy for the government’s perception of the common good. This trade-off between freedom and protection is a false dichotomy, and one that conceals the totalitarian impulses born of power exercised without due concern for citizens’ rights.
Not only will Abbott refuse people who might be a threat to Australia the “benefit of the doubt,” he’s denying every one of us the benefit of the doubt.
Actually, I have no idea what he means about denying potential security threats the benefit of the doubt, and I don’t think he has either.
You cannot argue that it is necessary to surveil everyone in order to ensure our safety, or to control everyone in order to control those who would do harm. That is a ludicrous position to take. So what does the government want with all this information on all of its citizens?
Surveillance is never neutral. It is never innocent. It presumes potential deviance, according to the watchers’ definitions of that term, and if it happens with our meta data, it will change the way we think about ourselves, and live our daily lives.