Privacy betrayal has blown Labor's chances

Labor seems bent on an ever-more-stunning array of policies that are all but sure to lose the election this year — and compromise everything Rudd and Conroy have worked towards. Will their proposal to track and log Australians' every move lose the election — or has bad policy already lost it for them?

Kevin Rudd must really hate the food service at Parliament House, to be so determined to get out of there ASAP. Or, perhaps, he's had an intensive maths tutoring session and is eager to leave after finally realising how many zeroes there actually are in a billion. How else to explain a digital snooping policy that violates every principle of personal freedom, every concept of fair dealings, every anti-interception legislation ever created, and every rule of what's technically possible?

Last week, I wondered whether Stephen Conroy's rapid conversion into a caricature of a minister reflected systemic problems within Labor. You wouldn't think Stephen Conroy would actually be trying to come up with a policy that is worse than both the internet filter and Google's own infractions, which Conroy recently labelled as "the largest privacy breach in the history [sic] across Western democracies". But he has: Conroy's once-haughty assumption of the moral, egalitarian high ground has descended into a poo-flinging match with Google; ill-informed but stubborn defence of a ridiculous filter policy; and, now, an over-intrusive log of your online activities that would have made Joseph McCarthy blush.


Australia's monkey overlords are putting themselves on the fast track to political ruin (Rhesus macaque image by J.M. Garg, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Now, I recognise that the credit for our soon-to-be-world's-worst-practice policy has been taken by the Attorney-General's (AG) Department, so Conroy may not be able to claim full credit. But the proposal is squarely telecommunications-related, so there's no way it could be floated, considered or executed without Conroy's direct involvement and authority.

Already on the back foot, the AG came out yesterday saying that the data retention scheme won't include users' web histories but is "purely about being able to identify and verify identities online" in the vein of the European Directive on Data Retention. Yet that directive (read it here (PDF)) actually seems to be directly designed to log everything you do on a telecommunications service. Sure, Article 1.2 specifies that the directive "shall apply to traffic and location data on both legal entities and natural persons and to the related data necessary to identify the subscriber or registered user. It shall not apply to the content of electronic communications, including information consulted using an electronic communications network". But Article 5.1 specifies that internet service providers (ISPs) must retain "data necessary to trace and identify the source of a communication concerning internet access, internet email and internet telephony".

There's a bit of ambiguity in just how much information would be captured: Article 5.1.d.2 in the directive refers to the need for data necessary to identify the "type of communication" and, in the case of "internet email and internet telephony", requires ISPs to record "the internet service used". Granted, this could refer to HTTP or FTP or TCP as much as it could refer to a specific URL — which could also be defined as an "internet service". And if "internet service" doesn't mean website visits, then what does it mean? An argument that "Bob was using the internet at XXXXX on XXXXX and therefore he's guilty of downloading bomb-making material" isn't going to fly in any court that I could imagine.

Government security-related tech policy still seems to be predicated on the idea that the world's terrorists and paedophiles are working with a nine-year-old's understanding of the internet and zero ability to take even basic precautions to cover their tracks ... why not just make life easier for everybody and order the implantation of RFID tags in the nape of every newborn baby's neck?

Clause 5.1.b.2.ii of the directive also requires ISPs to record the full name and address of anybody you email or call. Yes, seriously. So while the government may not want to read your emails or the content of your websites, it definitely wants to know which sites you visit, the address of everybody you communicate with, and where you were when you make a phone call or send an email. For a government that can't even get carriers to implement a viable system for locating callers to 000 services, that's a pretty big ask.

Just because the EU has done something, does that automatically make it good for Australians? In fact, is there anything about this policy that is good for Australians? Putting aside the egregious concerns about privacy — which the government has gone to great lengths to protect in the past decade through a stricter Privacy Act, stronger Do Not Call registry and the like — it seems hard to believe this kind of monitoring would actually help anything.

Government security-related tech policy still seems to be predicated on the idea that the world's terrorists and paedophiles are working with a nine-year-old's understanding of the internet and zero ability to take even basic precautions to cover their tracks. Even if a flurry of website hits indicated some anonymous user somewhere was accessing lots of information about bomb-making, what would you bet that those hits would usually trace back to some anonymous internet kiosk somewhere?

Labor could always address this loophole by mandating 24/7 video recording of every computer user through the built-in webcam, ATM-style, to be stored for analysis and recording — you know, just in case. Hell, why not just make life easier for everybody and order the implantation of RFID tags in the nape of every newborn baby's neck, then install readers at the door of every building in the country so we can track every Australians' every step, 24/7?

"Orwellian" doesn't even begin to describe the internet future Labor seems bent on delivering. This kind of data gathering is not only absurdly intrusive — actually, I prefer Exetel chief John Linton's choice of words ("totally insane") — but time and again it has been shown that this sort of thing just doesn't work. September 11 was a harsh reminder that even well-funded intelligence-gathering organisations struggle to keep on top of what's going on at the time, much less draw the connections to pick out trends from petabytes of historical internet usage data.

In fact, the only real use for this kind of infrastructure would be to provide a retrospective method for identifying people who have visited, or attempted to visit, sites blocked by whatever internet filter is eventually implemented. Some poor group of public servants would be tasked with visiting every link ever visited by every Australian, evaluating the content and tossing potentially RC-classified materials over the wall for evaluation and addition to the list. Then, of course, there'd be the issue of a stern warning notice, fine or court summons to the offending web surfer.

One could also imagine the information used by the recording and film industries to substantiate their nebulous copyright-infringement claims. But the government would never, ever kowtow to the interests of a specific constituency like that ... right?

Such uses would make Labor's latest proposal the internet equivalent of speed cameras — ubiquitous, sneaky, universally-hated, and of questionable efficacy when used more to generate millions in revenues for councils rather than deterring bad driving. It could also, the way things are going, be the final tipping point for a Labor government that has recently seemed deadset on promoting as many outrageously, horribly, embarrassingly awful policies as possible.

Labor's latest proposal [is] the internet equivalent of speed cameras — ubiquitous, sneaky, universally-hated, and of questionable efficacy .... It could also be the final tipping point for a Labor government that has recently seemed deadset on promoting as many outrageously, horribly, embarrassingly awful policies as possible.

This really is nothing new in politics, but you'd hope the really controversial legislation comes out after the election. Labor is in the run-up to the election, giving the Australian public every reason to send them packing. The party's political seppuku could not only lose the election, but see the once-buoyant Kevin Rudd frogmarched out of Parliament House in one of the most dramatic pantsings in political history.

It's not clear whether Julia Gillard would maintain the same policies or would dispense with this nonsense after years spent sitting quietly, smiling, behind Rudd while knowing full well that he's currently digging his own political grave. But it doesn't really matter: I don't know about you, but while I was prepared to take a chance on the internet filter imploding so as to enjoy the greater good that is the NBN, this latest disgrace could be enough to make me vote for neither of the major parties.

How about you? Will this latest privacy invasion put you off Labor for good? Had the internet filter already convinced you to put your vote elsewhere? Or is this all OK with you? Are we simply wrong to expect our government to respect our privacy online?

Show Comments