On The Junket Agenda: How Do We Get Australians To Start Caring About Their Digital Privacy?  

Our right to privacy is steadily being eroded. How can we turn the tide?

In the lead-up to Junkee’s first youth unconference, JUNKET, we’ve asked a few of the 200 delegates to expand on the ideas they’re bringing, to help set the agenda for – and start the right conversations about — Australia’s future.

What is information privacy? That question is actually harder to answer than you might think — there have been arguments about it between legal experts, politicians and academics for quite some time.

In a lot of ways it’s easier to say what privacy isn’t: it isn’t mass surveillance, it isn’t having data about you collected without your permission, and it isn’t having your personal information hacked, breached or leaked.

In February 2014, the Immigration Department accidentally disclosed the names, nationalities, dates of birth and other identifiers of 10,000 asylum seekers being held in Australian detention on their website. For most of us, this wouldn’t be a big deal — but for someone seeking asylum because they fear persecution, the consequences, should they be returned back home, could be imprisonment, torture, or even death.

Worst of all, there’s no real way for us to know whether this information has been revealed to the governments of the nations from which they have fled, or to the people who wish to persecute them. In Sri Lanka, for example, the simple act of leaving the country through an unofficial port carries criminal sanctions. Earlier this year, 46 asylum seekers Australia sent back to Vietnam were arrested as soon as they arrived; three were not released after questioning. When they were questioned by Australian authorities, they were told their answers would not be passed on to Vietnamese law enforcement. But their families now claim that it was. The Immigration Department refused to comment on the incident because they were “operational matters”.

This recent example illustrates the danger of collecting personal information, even for legitimate and governmental purposes. People who are concerned about the meta-data retention laws aren’t alarmists; the issue isn’t about how this information is being used now, but how it could be used, or misused, in the future. Mistakes happen. Leaks happen. Bad people happen. That’s why any privacy framework should be robust enough to protect people in the future, not just under their current government. But in Australia, our privacy framework is limited, and as the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has its funding stripped, even less effective.

The use and abuse of personal data is not a concept that is inherently tied to technology and the digital revolution. As Viktor Mayer-Schönberger outlines in his seminal text on digital privacy, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in The Digital Age, protecting our personal information needs to be part of the framework of any democracy. That is to say, we need a government that respects and values privacy if there’s ever really going to be any hope for its survival.

Lessons From The History Of Data Retention

Mayer-Schönberger outlines one of the darkest examples of what can happen in a world without actual privacy protection. In the 1930s, after the rise of Nazi Germany, the Dutch government came up with a revolutionary population registry. It contained the name, address, religion, birth date and personal information of every Dutch citizen.

The registry was applauded for making government more efficient. It enabled better healthcare, better welfare planning – in general, it contributed to a better government and society. That is, until Germany invaded the Netherlands and took possession of it. Suddenly, this amazing and innovative system was a weapon for persecution.

Gypsies, Jews and other minorities were identified easily, and were deported and murdered at a far higher rate than any other European country. This registry meant 73 percent of the Dutch Jewish population was murdered. Compare this to 40 percent  in Belgium and 25 percent  in France, and the consequences become very real.

We can learn a few things from this example. Firstly, digital technology is not the real enemy when it comes to protecting our personal information. It makes information easier to collect and analyse, sure, but the real threat comes from who controls that technology.

Secondly, it reminds us that the people who are most at risk are likely to be those who would be persecuted anyway. People who think they have “nothing to hide” — or lonely men who want to appear interesting — probably aren’t that concerned, and perhaps they shouldn’t be. But the Dutch felt safe in their democratic system, too.

Thirdly, it indicates the real question we need to ask about any form of data collection and retention: do the benefits – national security and law enforcement — outweigh the risks?

Where To From Here?

Here’s the thing: for the most part, our data is already out of our control. Metadata retention is here. Facial recognition technology is being applied to 100 million images of Australians, and we still don’t know who will be able to access this information. Australians have very few legal avenues to challenge the use of our personal data.

The most obvious and efficient solution is self-education: you have to learn how to protect yourself online. If you deal with sensitive information, it’s your responsibility to learn how to protect others.

But there’s something else that needs to happen too: Australia needs to demand stronger privacy protection from governmental authorities. We need to push for government policy and legal reforms that not only respect, but also actively promote, the privacy of Australians.

In order to get there, there needs to be a far broader public understanding of why our privacy actually matters, and what the risks could be. For now, that’s where journalists, experts, and advocates come in: it’s time to turn the conversation to some concrete strategies. But the battle for privacy needs the support of the general public as well, so if you aren’t already involved there is no better time to start.

Junket takes place at the QT Canberra on November 1-3.

Visit the Junket website here.

Em Meller is a writer, journalist and editor with a focus on law and digital privacy. Her work has appeared in Junkee, Overland, The Justinian and on 2SER, and she is a Junket delegate.

Feature image via nolifebeforecoffee on a Flickr Creative Commons licence. This image was resized.