Plibersek loses our privacy in a haystack of envelopes

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.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

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

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