In 2017, 1984 will finally catch up with Australians: you WILL be watched

You're driving along, minding your own business. As you round a corner, a police car pulls out and follows you down the road. Logic tells you that the police officers are probably heading back to the station for lunch; that their presence should make you feel safe, not nervous. You know that you have nothing to worry about because you're driving safely and legally and your car is roadworthy.

And yet ... there is something about being followed by a police car that makes your heart rate increase just a little. Against your better judgement you feel yourself ease off the gas the tiniest amount and become that little bit more attentive to the road in front of you. Your eyes flick up to the rearview mirror more often than they need to.

Eventually the police car turns a corner, leaving you alone, and you silently chide yourself for being silly as your grip on the wheel relaxes and your back melds back into the seat.

Now, imagine the same thing happens with your communications. Imagine that every time you make a phone call, send a text message or exchange an email you are being 'followed' by a virtual police car. Sure, the police can't hear or read what you're saying (as they can't in the car), but you still might find yourself, just occasionally, second guessing yourself.

You don't have to be guilty of anything for surveillance to make you nervous.

Well, guess what? This is exactly what is about to happen in Australia. The Australian parliament, with the support of both major parties, last week passed new data retention legislation. After those laws are implemented, by the start of 2017, all electronic communication in Australia will be 'followed' by a virtual police car. Three cars, actually: ASIO, ASIS and the Australian Federal Police will all be behind you ... all the time.

That might sound alarmist, but it is a matter of fact and I, for one, find it disturbing.

In a free, democratic country, we should be able to go about our business without feeling as though we are being watched. That's what our freedom is all about. Even if we have nothing to hide we shouldn't feel guilty for wanting to keep some things to ourselves. That's why we have curtains in our houses. It's why we don't put our home address on Facebook. It's why some choose not to have a Facebook account at all. (Remarkable but true.)

Yes, we live in a community and as a result we don't have complete freedom to do whatever we want. We have laws to maintain societal order just as our families have rules to maintain domestic order. Yes, there's a balance there and where the fulcrum rests between 'nanny state' and 'free state' is a matter of ongoing debate. I happen to support a fair bit of government intervention but I also believe that governments need to justify such interventions.

The government and Labor, of course, say the new data retention laws are justified on the basis of 'making us safe'. That they will help protect us from terrorists, child molesters and other serious criminals.

But they have offered no evidence to support this other than saying 'crucial' and 'critical' And 'vital' over and over again. They also have no real idea how much implementing the laws or processing all the data is going to cost. And they simply ignore the fact that bypassing the laws will be child's play (as even Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull points out), rending them virtually useless from the outset.

Australians have been duped on data retention, which has been easy because most don't understand what it's all about (heck, not even the Attorney General does) and most of the media ignored the issue until the last minute.

Oh, and one other thing. If you think we needn't worry about these laws because societal pressure will keep the government from overreach, consider this. Right now 30 people deemed genuine refugees are being held indefinitely in a Melbourne detention centre – some have been held for five years so far – without charge. They are not allowed to appeal the 'adverse security findings' that are the cause of their detention. Neither they nor anyone else, other than ASIO, is even allowed to know what those findings are let alone test their accuracy. They have no prospect of release ... ever.

The data retention laws have been passed and soon enough those virtual police cars will be right behind us. But perhaps at least now you'll know that they're there.

There are many good articles that delve into the detail of the data retention legislation and its implications. Two particularly good ones are here and here.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please add a comment below or contact me.

Police lights image courtesy Scott Davidson, Flickr

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