Brandis takes the data-retention debate beyond logic

Attorney-General Brandis has co-opted the Charlie Hebdo massacre and Sydney's Martin Place siege into his fight for data retention, a glorious victory of efficiency over logic.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

You've got to hand it to him. Australia's favourite Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis QC, is certainly one for efficiency. Last year, he wasted so much time on complicated spin and used car grade salesmanship in his push for mandatory telecommunication data-retention laws. But now, well, just read the words he poured into The Australian on Monday morning.

Brandis has squeezed back his propaganda strategy to the bare essentials, giving it an almost elegant minimalism. A scare story. A reminder that the government is our protector. A repeat of the metadata lie. A reminder that the spooks really, really want that metadata. And a final reassurance about freedom.

"After the Martin Place siege and the atrocities in France, no rational person can dispute that the world -- and the free and democratic West in particular -- faces a profound threat that is likely to be with us for a long time," Brandis begins.

It's only five days since the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, and emotions are still raw. A lesser man might have hesitated, might have been concerned about tastefulness, might have waited before scooping this tragedy into the grist of his own political needs. But not Brandis. Those soft Europeans might be taking to the streets in protest, but Brandis is straight into reminding us that the world is dangerous and he must protect us. Efficiency.

A lesser man might have wasted time connecting the dots, explaining how mandatory data retention could protect Australians from a similar event. Such a lesser man would have failed.

"France already has extensive surveillance powers," wrote Paul Bernal, lecturer in Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law at the University of East Anglia Law School -- and that already includes mandatory data retention. "It already has ID cards. It already has more privacy invasions than we in the UK have -- and we have a huge amount. That surveillance, those privacy invasions, didn't stop the shooting in Paris. Why, therefore, would we believe that similar powers would work better in the UK?"

Or, for that matter, Australia?

A lesser man would worry that the perpetrator of Sydney's Martin Place siege was already well known to police and intelligence agencies -- but that for reasons yet to be uncovered, he was not under surveillance. A lesser man would have wasted time thinking about whether mandatory data retention would have helped, as opposed to just deploying the powers already available.

A lesser man would worry about describing metadata, as Brandis did today, as "the details, but not the content, of telecommunications". He would worry that this distinction is an accident of technological history, one that bears little relationship to whether the data should only be accessible with a warrant.

A lesser man would worry about whether collecting more data on everyone is necessarily helpful. A lesser man would waste time pondering alternatives and running a cost-benefit analysis.

"If the resources -- time, money, energy, intelligence -- currently put into mass surveillance systems that are unproven, have huge and damaging side effects, and are even potentially counter-productive, were, instead, devoted to a more intelligent, targeted approach, it might even be that counter-terrorism is more effective. We should be looking for new ways, not going down paths that are costly in both financial and human terms," Bernal wrote, clearly such a lesser man himself.

Brandis has avoided the inefficiencies of the lesser man. He's avoided wasteful logic, and learning, and bean counting, and dot joining. He's stuck to the propaganda program. Efficiency. Scary world, government protector, data retention, freedom.

"[T]he public can be reassured that the government has taken, and will take, all appropriate steps to protect our safety and freedom," he wrote.


Leaving aside the weasel word "appropriate", we know that the government simply does not take all the steps it could to protect our safety.

"We should be spending billions fighting bathtubs, not terrorism," wrote Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge back in 2012. "[D]rowning in bathtubs kills over five times as many people [in Europe] as terrorism -- 223 per year! We need to pull all the taxpayer billions from fighting terrorism immediately and put them to work against bathtubs. They are more than five times as dangerous as terrorism!"

In fact, falling off chairs and falling out of bed are even worse dangers. Worse still, 100 times more dangerous than terrorism, is the staircase. "This evil killer, this savage monster that reaps European sons and daughters like wheat in the field. This cause of death reaps 4,362 people per year," Falkvinge wrote. Similar figures apply in Australia.

But Brandis doesn't merely avoid this sort of cost-benefit analysis; he actually finds the concept offensive. When asked why we spend so much money fighting terrorism, a rare event, and so little preventing domestic violence, a far more likely danger for individual Australians, he responded angrily, saying that was "foolishly conflating two completely unrelated issues".

Sigh. Again.

The headline on Brandis' article today is "One more anti-terror tool". Sounds about right.

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