Surveillance capitalism, not govt, the big threat

Published on the 25/01/2022 | Written by Heather Wright

It’s time for broader discussion…

Ordinary citizens have more to fear from big tech and corporations mining personal data than they do from government surveillance, according to Australia’s Department of Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo.

He says Australians – at least those not engaging in criminal activities – should not fear ‘Big Brother’ style monitoring of their behaviour, but that’s something that can’t be guaranteed from private companies. 

“A more immediate pressing problem for citizenry is to directly understand what companies are doing with that personal and sometimes intimate data, which is almost turning your privacy, yourself, your preferences, your attitudes, who you are, into the commodity that is being either sold back to the prime company with whom you have got a  relationship, or being on-sold,” Pezzullo says.

“Everything the government will do will always be purposefully designed by the parliament to be much more restrictive than that.”

His comments came during the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s webinar on reforming Australia’s electronic surveillance laws. Public consultation is currently underway on replacing ‘a patchwork of legislation which now exceeds 1,000 pages and 35 warrants’. 

“There are no such oversight provisions in big tech particularly.”

A discussion document into the reforms was released last month by Minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews, who dubbed the existing laws governing electronic surveillance as ‘overly complex, inconsistent and … outpaced by rapidly evolving technology’.

Attendees at the webinar questioned how privacy would be safeguarded under the new laws but Pezzullo says the laws will only target those involved in the worst of offences, such as terrorism, child exploitation and organised crime. 

He was keen to dispel the ‘notion that has crept into discussion around surveillance of the mass ingestion of data almost for a store it to use later basis’.

Pezzullo says he likes to think most everyday citizens will be able to go about their daily business ‘feeling a very high level of confidence’ that because they’re not involved in criminal activities, their communications, devices and interaction on the internet are not subject to any government scrutiny ‘whatsoever’.

“As citizens ourselves I’m sure most of my colleagues who work in government don’t want that sort of ubiquitous sense of being under the gaze of someone else listening to you, looking at you, understanding what you are doing. But that is, in fact, what is happening in our private lives through the emergence of surveillance capitalism.”

Surveillance capitalism is the commoditisation of personal data in order to profit.

“It’s more than passing strange to me… that we shed more of our own personal and sometimes quite intimate data in ways that we probably don’t fully understand or appreciate.

“We have complex terms and conditions, mods that are built into software updates where you don’t fully understand where the data is stored, scraped, utilised, controlled etc,” he says.

“We’d very much like to land this legislation as a model exemplar back to the private sector about how to engage in moderated self-restraining surveillance,” Pezzullo says.

Rachael Falk, Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre CEO, says there is significant current oversight in the warrant process.

“With the exception of the EU there are no such oversight provisions in big tech particularly.”

All bets are off, however, if you are suspected of serious offences.

“It really is quite simple, if you are beginning to embark on serious criminal activities and in some cases or offences where even planning is an offence, then you lose the right to privacy.”

As to the legislation itself, Pezzullo says it’s not so much a ‘renovation’ but a ‘rebuild’, clearing up the patchwork of existing legislation cobbled together over four decades.

He says it’s very important to get the ‘duality of balance right’ between the proper scrutiny, authorisation and oversight of the use by the state of the most intrusive powers that parliament makes available – namely surveillance, interception and monitoring of citizens and non-citizens – combined with supporting agencies to keep us safe from harm.

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