Australians will trade privacy for security if you frame it right

If you want to invade the average Australian's privacy, tell them it will prevent terror and you will be on your way.

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Australians are a fearful bunch who just need to have the right bogeyman waved in front of them to make them complicit in whatever privacy-endangering scheme you are cooking up.

Don't believe me? Then cast your eye over the Digital Rights in Australia [PDF] paper released by the University of Sydney on Monday and turn to page 24, for it contains a masterclass on how to frame a question for the response that helps your case.

For those concerned about protecting the privacy of citizens, the numbers start out reasonable enough with almost 80 percent of respondents stating that it is a breach of privacy when the government requires telcos to keep information on when phone calls happened and who they were to.

This happens to be exactly the sort of data collected by Australia's data retention laws, passed by both major parties in March 2015, which forces telecommunications carriers to store customer call records, location information, IP addresses, billing information, and other data for two years, accessible without a warrant by law-enforcement agencies.

When the question is switched to favouring or opposing ISPs collecting data on websites visited and people contacted, only 31 percent were in favour, and 58 percent opposed it. That almost a third of people support the collection of web history, even though the current data retention laws do not mandate the collection of websites visited, is concerning.

But it only gets worse from here.

When the question becomes "Do you favour or oppose law enforcement and security agencies being able to access information about who you contact, when, and what websites you visit?" the number of those in support hits 42 percent, and those opposed sits at 47 percent.

And then the report gets to the kicker, and the question is: "Do you favour or oppose a government program to collect communications of nearly all internet users as part of anti-terrorism efforts?"

Now the numbers switch to those in favour being 57 percent, and those against 31 percent -- almost an exact mirror from the question on whether ISPs should be collecting data.

"Clearly, there is salience for metadata data collection and surveillance when it is framed in security and anti-terrorism terms," the report states. "Privacy is important to Australians, but can be forsaken or traded off against security fears."

This shows exactly how to get majority support for things like data retention: As a politician, you just need to throw around a few "national securities" here and a couple of "anti-terrorisms" there.

And in the wash-up, it probably doesn't matter if the data retention regime is used for chasing drug dealers, not terrorists, because those in power are only too keen to hop back up on the soapbox and reissue the above anti-terror recipe to make sure the electorate is properly concerned about their imminent security again.

The report from the University of Sydney also found Australians thought online privacy was beyond their control, but also that 65 percent thought they had nothing to hide.

It's hard to have a conversation about protecting something if you are willing to hand it away.

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