Culture

The Government Knows What Porn You Like, Now They Want To Watch You Enjoying It

This all sounds very 'Black Mirror', but we have good reason to be worried.

mass surveillance

Chances are you’ve noticed that Australia is rapidly becoming a dystopian hellscape. The government is prosecuting people who testify about Australia’s illegal activity, raiding journalists and threatening them with prison time.

Fair to say that this is all Very Bad™ but that’s all House of Cards stuff and doesn’t affect you, right? Well, there’s more. The government passed new laws forcing tech companies and websites to help hack your devices and is trying to spy on your emails, texts and bank records.

Of course, this is in addition to Australia’s system of mass surveillance, and now there’s a face recognition database in the works

Hold Up, Mass Surveillance?

Yup! It’s called ‘metadata retention’.

If data is the content of texts, calls, and emails, then metadata is information about that content. It’s not the message itself, but the details of when you sent it and who you sent it to. It’s also when you’re online and for how long.

The government wants you to think that it’s harmless information, but in reality, someone can piece together your browser history. They can’t see what you’re watching on Pornhub, but by comparing metadata with server data they can see you visited for 10 minutes and 13 seconds... yet they claim they “don’t know” what you were doing.

So What’s Metadata Retention Then?

Laws from 2015 mean that phone companies and internet providers are required to track and store your metadata for 2 years.

Companies like Telstra, Optus and Vodafone have a list of your phone calls, emails, and online activity since April 2017.

Metadata retention was supposed to be about catching terrorists, but this was always a stretch. Instead, the system has been exploited by police. ACT police illegally accessed metadata more than 3000 times while the federal police used the system to target journalists.

It’s not just law enforcement either. More than 87 government agencies including the ATO, Australia Post, Centrelink, Work Safe and city councils have all tried to snoop on your metadata without warrants. Now Peter Dutton’s Home Affairs department wants telcos to hold on to the data for longer.

If someone is watching, they definitely know what porn you watch. Did I mention that now is a great time to learn about VPNs?

And Facial Recognition?

Back in 2017, all the states and territories sat down around a big table and agreed to build a national database of everyone’s faces to “combat terrorism” (stop me if this is sounding familiar). Victoria and Tasmania have started building their own systems which will eventually be linked to a national one.

Your driver’s licence and passport photo will go into a big network, which cops and spies can use to identify people — and businesses will also have access too. Privacy groups were quick to point out that this is a big step towards real-time surveillance of public spaces.

Human rights groups also suggest that facial recognition could be used against protestors and activists. Also, facial recognition tends to be just a teensy bit racist.

Junkee asked Liz Campbell (a law professor at Monash Uni) if this was true. “The police should tread cautiously,” she said. “There are quite a few reports that face recognition can be poor for people who aren’t white men, so there’s the problem of misidentification. African American communities are already policed in a heavy-handed way, which is a risk for First Nations people as well.”

Daniel James, a Yorta Yorta man and writer, agrees: “I think any sort of tech that exposes our chances of interacting with the legal system is detrimental… These kinds of systems are potentially a way to oppress Aboriginal people further.”

As if this wasn’t enough, the government just suggested using face scans to verify people’s age for online porn. If this sounds unhinged, that’s because… it is. The UK just abandoned a similar plan for an age verification system because it was a) technically unfeasible and b) a privacy nightmare.

Wow, OK… Where’s All This Heading?

The big question is what future governments can do if they tie all these systems together. For example, the government could make lists of political activists by matching search terms with facial IDs, or even of queer people by collecting porn preferences (probably a bad idea).

Or a government could link face ID to the controversial My Health Record system, allowing them to identify people living with HIV in the street. Or with Centrelink’s robotdebt system to monitor how poor people and students spend their money.

This all sounds very Black Mirror, but we have good reason to be worried.

“It’s not outlandish in a global sense, it’s conceivable. It’s happening in China and probably in Hong Kong… We’re putting an awful lot of trust in the government, lawmakers are scrambling to catch up with what’s happening,” said Professor Campbell.

James agrees, “Under the current government, we’ve seen a great readiness to link these systems together. But we don’t have any coherent policy on facial recognition, just an agenda security agencies are pushing.”

“We’re not having a national discussion, and there’s no policy framework, just a creeping police state. These powers could come back to bite us.”


Joshua Badge is a lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University and an LGBTIQ activist. You can catch him on Twitter @JoshuaBadge.