Published in The Weekend Australian on 2.11.13
Amid the controversy about alleged American eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile telephone discussions and the collation of data about global mobile phone traffic, a much quieter conversation is going on here in Australia.
It's not new: Australians have long grappled with the tension between privacy and safety. If we know where the criminals are, we can better protect ourselves from their evil. But they aren't criminals before they commit a crime, so in order to protect ourselves we need to know where everyone is. That includes you.
Confronted with this choice, the more recent practice of Australians, and people the world over, has been to make no choice. So it's being made for them. With every new closed circuit television camera installed, every retina reader in public and private places, every deployment of face-recognition technology, a decision is being made in favour of safety over privacy.
Bob Hawke's first political advertisement in the 1987 election campaign was for the government's then-popular Australia Card proposal. Every Australian would be issued a unique identifier number with the purpose of cracking down on welfare and tax fraud. But by 1988, the re-elected Hawke government had abandoned the Australia Card, so overwhelmingly had public opinion turned against it.
Agitated by a conservative federal opposition and the ranting of talkback radio hosts, Australians chose privacy over the higher taxes they would have to pay to support ever-increasing welfare and tax cheating. It was the last time they made a conscious choice.
With the advent of the internet and digital video cameras in the 1990s, far more sophisticated and more continuous ways of monitoring and recording a person's activities began emerging.
Back then the police might get lucky if a local convenience store or railway station had recorded images of suspect behaviour. But now, with most retail outlets, public buildings and community spaces equipped with closed circuit television cameras, images of an individual's movement over extended periods of time can be retrieved.
Closed circuit television images provided evidence to bring the killer of Melbourne woman Jill Meagher to justice. Their use in criminal cases is now commonplace. Surely that's a welcome technological advance.
But what are the constraints on third-party usage of closed circuit television images when no crime has been committed? In practice, not many, it seems. Back in 2001 a parliamentary committee chair, Christopher Pyne, claimed I had intimidated him at a public bar in Canberra. At no time did Pyne allege I had committed a crime; just that I had used vulgar language (which I did not deny). The Speaker of the house sought video footage of the entire evening from the bar. The bar owner obliged, possibly worried about the consequences of non-compliance on his patronage.
Consider the precedent. If a parliamentarian decides a political rival or member of the public has been intimidating, the Speaker can seek video images of the alleged incident.
Politicians, as we know, are fair game. But surely we should at least be discussing the adequacy of privacy protections for private individuals against the misuse of video footage, retina imaging, mobile roaming and other technologies by law enforcement authorities, national security agencies and the general public.
US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden has warned of the intrusion on personal liberties by US national security agencies. Yet that intelligence gathering has averted a number of planned terror attacks in the US and elsewhere, saving countless lives. Video footage helped authorities identify the Boston Marathon bombers who killed several bystanders. However, innocent people caught up as suspects in the crowd-sourcing exercise had to work for days to clear their names.
Advances in computing technology will make it easier to identify patterns of mobile telephone calls, enabling security agencies more effectively to identify and thwart planned terrorist plots.
Facial imaging, by which computers can define the essential features of people's faces and identify them despite subsequent changes that would baffle the human eye, can be an early step in tracking every person's movements over their lifetimes. Foot traffic through Brisbane's main shopping mall is to be monitored based on mobile phones carried by pedestrians.
These are some of the existing surveillance technologies, mostly developed in just the past 20 years. More will follow very quickly, as Emmeline Taylor, convener of criminology at the Australian National University, points out.
Raising the privacy issue is not unpatriotic. If the public is better informed about the technologies being deployed and the adequacy of laws governing their usage, more informed choices can be made. Do you remember who sang the lyrics, "Every step you take, every move you make, I'll be watching you"? It was the Police. But the police are here to protect us, aren't they? You decide.