Plibersek loses our privacy in a haystack of envelopes

Plibersek loses our privacy in a haystack of envelopes

Summary: Australia's shadow foreign minister wants to give our spooks more tools for fighting domestic terrorism, but she's only re-bleating their discredited clichés.


Dear oh dear, Tanya Plibersek, dear oh dear oh dear oh me oh my! Where do I begin?

I know that the Australian Labor Party has a lot to think about, having been soundly thrashed in the last federal election. And I guess there must be a lot on your plate personally, what with being the party's deputy leader at a time when it still seems to be missing some sort of leader for you to be deputy to. Tough gig. Sympathies.

But re-bleating the discredited analogies of the digital spooks? Really? After everything we've learned about the vast power of metadata collection in the last year, thanks to Edward Snowden?

I was astounded to read The Guardian's report of your TV interview on Sunday.

Plibersek played down the invasions of privacy posed by metadata sweeps, reasoning the intercepted material was the "envelope", not the contents. "People describe it as keeping the haystack so you can go back and look for the needle afterwards," she said.

I've already written how metadata is just more personal data, and how attempting to portray it as less revealing of our private lives than the "content" is disingenuous. Anyone still pushing that angle is either a fool or a liar. (I'm sure you're neither, Ms Plibersek; as I say, you've been busy.) There's also a slide from Electronic Frontier Foundation kicking around on Twitter today that makes the same point.

But I'm wondering just how big a haystack Ms Plibersek reckons our spooks need, when they've already got more hay than ever before — and can cut and bale it more effectively than ever before, what with their data centres full of computers, and nifty analytical software, and ever more warm bodies and keen minds at their disposal?

After all, the spooks already have the power to issue "ongoing domestic preservation notices" — that is, to get internet service providers to start logging a customer's activity — as soon as they have a reasonable suspicion they might be up to something that falls within a rather wide range of potential crimes.

The only possibility left, logically, is the surveillance of people who are *not* under suspicion. I thought that we who lived in western democracies frowned upon that sort of thing. Either way, it's certainly something to consider when reading another paragraph from The Guardian's report.

[Plibersek] said the community had a right to privacy, and to expectations of living in an open and democratic society — but her view was government needed to make it as "easy as we can" for intelligence agencies to protect against established and emerging threats.

Have you ever noticed that the phrase "The community has a right to privacy, but" has the same structure as "I'm not a racist, but"? How there's lip service to the idea of privacy, then in the very next breath a proposal that would comprehensively trash it? In western democracies we don't make things "as easy as we can" for spooks, we seek a balance between their power and our freedoms — all the while keeping the supposed "threats" in perspective.

Here's some perspective.

How many people have been killed in a terrorist attack in Australia in the past decade?


In the past two decades?


In the past three decades?


On 23 November 1986, the unfortunate Hagob Levonian blew himself up with his own poorly conceived device in what's known as the Turkish consulate car-bombing.

The last times Australians have been killed in terrorist attacks anywhere in the world were when a British-Australian man was killed in Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall attack last year, then — a long gap — when four died in the Bali bombings of October 2005, and a Melbourne man died in the London bombing earlier the same year. The more serious and better-known Bali bombings, and the so-called 9/11 incident in New York, tragic as they were, were more than a decade ago.

Despite all the talk of terrorists — and this has been pointed out so many times before — we'd be better off launching a war against bathtubs. Or getting all the spooks into sporting kit and out on the paddock, leading the kiddies in some exercise in the battle against obesity — which is something far more likely to kill us in the long run. But instead, they're thinking up new terrorist threats.

[Plibersek] was asked whether strengthening of the interceptions regime was justified in the wake of new threats posed by radicalised fighters returning from the Syrian conflict — an issue the Abbott government and intelligence agencies have expressed concern about.

"There continue to be threats. Those threats may increase," Plibersek said ...

Well, in response to that I'll point to two things.

One, an eminently readable analysis by Gary Brecher aka The War Nerd, which points out that jihadis from countries like Australia are small in number and rather low in effectiveness. I reckon we could track them individually as they left the country and returned, and assign each one their own personal ASIO agent.

Two, RAND Corporation research which suggests that self-radicalisation through the internet — without having to go to Syria or whatever the fashionable conflict might be — isn't even a thing.

Dear Ms Plibersek, we already have one side of politics wallowing in their own fantasy of the last century, or the century before that. We don't need another. There's plenty of real research out there, about real threats and the real risks.

Leadership is about navigating those waters, not being a mouthpiece for outdated clichés.

Update: This article originally omitted the Westgate shopping mall attack

Topics: Privacy, Government AU, Security


Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust.

He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit trap, clear a jam in an IBM model 026 card punch and mix a mean whiskey sour.

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  • Are we Guilty or Innocent of terrorist crimes?

    The spook agenda is to assume everyone is guilty of terrorism and then justify the spying by saying it's used to eliminate the innocent from their spying activities. It's interesting the government is not suggesting we spy on each other day and night as has been done in some semi failed countries in the past. I suppose it's not cost effective if we were to be paid to do it. Spying is about the "capability". If the technology is there to do it, the Spy agencies want it. For instance they are not advocating putting listening devices into every home or workplace. The technology would be too costly and obvious. They rather force all your service providers to hand over all the bread crumb trails you leave behind and sift through that. I can only assume if we all turned off our mobile phones and Internets, terrorism activities would increase dramatically..
  • The value of a human life

    Yes, the RIGHT way to assess these things is cost of program divided by number of lives saved.
    Putting the total spook budget into road blackspot repairs would yield a 10,000-fold increase in effectiveness of government expenditure.
    And the 'simple' way to keep terrorism risk low is to use a table of terrorist actions by country, and then to use immigration quotas to severely limit immigration from such countries (only until their residents showed less proclivity to kill & maim others to make a political point). That would cost almost nothing (and has nothing to do with overall size of immigration intake). The only reason that the 'experts' in terrorism don't recommend 'lessening the risk' is that this action would remove the need for their >$1b/yr budget to 'manage this risk'. What bureaucracy ever recommends an action that would remove their 'raison d'etre'?

    Moreover, this 'sickness' our spooks picked-up from their American counterparts is BAD for democracy. It is now shown that the NSA primary role is to silence dissent. Hoover kept secrets on four presidents and kept them away from reforming the FBI through such secrets. The pre-Snowden NSA leaker noted that VP Cheney had the most private conversations (not meta-data) of Candidate Obama and Supreme Court Judge Alito reported to the VP daily for purely political reasons. Neither was a suspect in any terrorism plot, nor any other illegal activity. It was simply Watergate re-run using a newer form of wire-tap for political advantage.

    And what sort of society do you get if those in power have STASI-like snooping. Well, East Germany was the best example. And former KGB spook Putin has secrets on all who matter in Russian politics, so you get the secret-holder holding power over the whole country. And that leads to dictatorship and corruption.

    No good can ever come from the NSA-style snooping on all non-suspect individuals. We must return to judges in open courts issuing warrants for such data to be collected, on purely a list of known suspects, not the whole population!
  • Terrorists arn't fools.

    The reason the spooks aren't stopping attacks or finding numerous suspects or terrorists is because the last thing these people would use is a non encrypted mobile or email to discuss their plans. They are too cleaver to be caught out by these surveillance methods. If these security and law enforcement agencies want results they have to go back and do the hands on surveillance wearing their trench coats, hats and sunglasses.

    If they want to gather private information on someone, they should be only allowed to do so after a court has granted them with a warrant. Plibersek is, like most politicians, very loose when it comes to protecting other peoples rights and privacy.