Australia’s Most Watched – A mass surveillance masterpiece

By Jordan

A mass surveillance masterpiece On the surface, Australia is that laid back, sun-kissed country that pats you on the back and invites you to sit down for a beer and a laugh… a harmless nation that’s perfectly happy playing little brother to more influential countries…

A mass surveillance masterpiece

On the surface, Australia is that laid back, sun-kissed country that pats you on the back and invites you to sit down for a beer and a laugh… a harmless nation that’s perfectly happy playing little brother to more influential countries with more serious concerns. But don’t be fooled by the disarming façade painted by tourism and entertainment industries, as Australia is home to some of the most comprehensive and invasive examples of mass surveillance in the western world. So maybe Big Brother is more appropriate!

Over the past decade, the Australian government and its affiliated intelligence agencies have put into place a series of measures to ensure that the average web-connected citizen lives under constant scrutiny. In 2013, Edward Snowden’s infamous information leaks revealed Australia’s role in the world wide surveillance machine – that not only do we contribute to the NSA’s widespread recording of user data, but that our intelligence organisations are 20 times more likely to intercept phonecalls/online communications than the US government. Even more concerning is the fact that these agencies can access our data without a warrant from a judge.

What propels this unjust mass surveillance into 1984 territory is the justification for its existence. The recording of everyday user data is seen as a ‘pre-crime’ surveillance measure, a post-9/11 concept with Orwellian overtones that functions to aggregate any information that is remotely alarming to form a picture of ‘anticipated future harm’. What this means is, hypothetically, that if you were to use Google to research causes of modern terrorism, then post on Twitter in support of progressive, non-violent activists, you could very well be placed on a watchlist.

Those in power are superheroes and we’re all villains

This combing of user activity isn’t restricted to governments and intelligence organisations. Air Bnb and Uber have both cancelled user accounts based on what some have said was relatively benign online behaviours (such as social media comments that do not tow a particular political line). Insurance companies are known to have done the same in order to assess a user’s eligibility or to raise premiums. Employers can now carry out unofficial tracings of a potential employee’s online trail to determine whether their online behaviours fail to align with a company’s preferences – something as simple as using profanity amongst friends can land you in hot water.

The overriding sentiment here is that those in power operate under the presumption of guilt. Australian citizens are no longer afforded a base-level of respect, but rather are seen as people with the potential of carrying out wrongdoing at some yet-to-be-determined point in time. It’s a sentiment straight out of the Philip K. Dick-scribed/Stephen Spielberg-adapted Minority Report, where “precogs” alert the authorities of those that will commit a crime, before they commit a crime. Except here, the basis of suspicion is even less reliable. We’re all bad people with bad intentions and we will be revealed as such.

When we’re not criminals, we’re commodities

For Australian citizens, our data is in the centre of a tug of war. On one side we have those scrutinising our online behaviours for the slightest whiff of potential wrongdoing and on the other we have those stealing and manipulating our information for profit. Heading up this second side is, of course, are prominent tech giants. Some of them may self-promote as righteous and transparent, but they sure go out of their way to hide their true nature.

Google data centres exist all over the world, primarily in North and South America, Asia, Europe and yes, Australia. Data centres are colossal warehouses filled with endless racks of servers, though it’s almost impossible to pin down exactly how many. Australia’s data centre is allegedly housed in Sydney, though its exact location is a point of conjecture. Exactly why Google goes to such great lengths to hide the specifics of its data centre is anyone’s guess.

Could it be because these locations are where every online action we perform while in the Googlesphere are recorded, harvested and used for unknown purposes? It’s well established that our online behaviours are tracked and reinforced in order to sell us more and more, but who knows what else Google chooses to do with our data. What we do know is that when we use Google services and applications, we are handing over our (take a deep breath) name, password, phone number, payment information, content created and received, telephone info, message info, routing info, search terms, videos watched, ad views, people we share with, browsing history, device type and settings, ip address, system activity and the list goes on and on… and on. It’s also accepted that Telstra and Optus can get direct access to Google’s data at a flat rate. Has it really come to the point where no organisation of scale can be trusted?

As more and more of our appliances adopt web-connectivity capabilities; as more of our devices listen into our conversations even when not in use, corporations will continue to tighten their grip on our very existences. And thanks to the absence of legislation and/or a bill of rights, these powerful entities can continue to do what they do while claiming to be acting in our best interests.

As the US is finally understanding that mass surveillance is an issue that needs addressing, Australia is heading in the exact opposite direction. Things are going to get worse before they get better.

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