Thursday, January 10, 2008

Australia's eroding freedoms

Growing up, I read lots of science fiction, everything I could get my hand on.

One common theme was the progressive erosion of individual freedom leading to the creation of totalitarian states. A second, linked, theme was the way in which the state used a variety of surveillance and control techniques to protect the status quo from subversion.

We are all conditioned to some degree by what we read. While I thought that some scenarios were far fetched, I certainly formed views about the need to guard against state control.

My childhood was a period of great international tension, the cold war. Seeing the possibility of the world ending through nuclear war is a far more dramatic threat than the slight individual risk of being killed in a terrorist attack.

Even though Australia did not suffer quite the same paranoia as Senator McCarthy in the United States, the then Australian Government argued strongly for greater powers, greater controls. Yet, somehow, the Australian people were reluctant to agree to this.

I think that part of the reason for this lay in the immediacy of the Second World War where we had seen how Government could be subverted, could become vicious and murderous. As a child I read the stories of barbaric treatment by the GESTAPO, I shuddered at the use of techniques like partial drowning or electric shock.

I was reminded of all this today by a simple thing.

My wife went for an interview. She took her passport with her because this is an increasing requirement for certain types of jobs. You must prove that you are Australian.

This time there was a new twist. She was asked to sign a form giving authorisation for them to consult the Immigration Department. My wife refused. Not only has she has been employed by this firm before, but it was a fairly useless request.

Think about it for a moment.

Back in those increasingly dim days, Australians would have found it strange, even outrageous, that one should be required to prove that one was Australian or at least a permanent resident before doing some financial analysis.

Okay that there should be a security clearance if your job involved national security considerations in that cold war world. But to prove that you were Australian just to do some modelling?

I accept that I am sometimes out of kilter with the times. But surely this is extreme?

Returning to my science fiction theme, the only difference that I can see between Australia today and some of those SF worlds is the the way in which power is applied. The mechanics are the same.

Somehow, I do not find this comforting. I simply do not have enough trust to assume that the application of power will in fact be constrained when the means are there.


Lexcen said...

Jim, I think you make a valid point regarding the erosion of freedoms. It is borne out of the governments' compulsion to protect us citizens in every way possible. This is done by a series of regulations,licenses and permits that not only generate revenue for the government but pin us down to a database that stores our personal information. This in itself may seem innocuous until you see the big picture, when databases become interlinked. For example, the centrelink database is linked to the DFA database so that anyone claiming a pension who leaves the country will set off alarm bells at centrelink. The tax office database is also linked to centrelink. Throw in a few cameras that record our movements in public places and add a touch of thought control through government propaganda and bingo, you have George Orwell's vision of "1984".

Jim Belshaw said...

Well put, Lexcen. We need systems to protect us. We then need systems to protect the systems from us. We then need further systems to protect us from all the systems. And so it goes.

This gives rise to the types of systemic complexity problems that I often write about. And, as you note at the end, it also leads to "1984"

Anonymous said...

Jim, I do not like databases (Interesting considering the sector in which I have worked my entire life). More correctly it should be that I believe in strong privacy laws. Having the database without the privacy laws would take one further down the road expressed by the US supreme court:

A US citizen has no expectation of Privacy in today's America.

The real question should be why are not all databases maintained by government sealed from outside sources not specific to the need for which they were created?

Jim Belshaw said...

You avae made a fair point, David. It used to be the case that individual information provided to one part of Government on a private in-confidence basis would not be shared. In the case of the Australian Tax Office this was mandated ny law.

There is a very strong case for going back to this practice.