Data Retention: Our privacy is worth fighting for


The government’s proposed data retention policies are already being defended by some in the media, with the same old tired “what have you got to hide” arguments.
The announcement that the government would push for mandatory data retention laws in Australia broke yesterday — here’s ZDNet’s take, here’s Gizmodo’s — and it’s a worrying picture if you fuss about privacy at all.
Not everyone does, though. I also read with interest Trevor Long’s piece over at EFTM (“Let’s all just calm down about Data Retention ok? It’s happening everywhere.“) in which he defends the idea on, predictably, security and the whole “what have you got to hide” rhetoric.
It’s worth noting that Trevor and I sit on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and that’s fine; in a democracy everyone’s entitled to a voice and hold an opinion.
We’ve been known to disagree in the past, probably will do so in the future, and I rather like Trevor. He’s enthusiastic, passionate and opinionated. Again, everyone’s entitled to an opinion.
Here’s mine.
You’re wrong, Trevor, and rather dangerously so.
To give some broader context, the collection and storage of metadata is indeed something that big businesses do all the time with a whole heaping spoonful of our data. It’s why Google Now can tell you how far away from home you are, because Google’s got a lot of aggregate data collected through its many services on you. I’ve hit relatively few people who aren’t both impressed with what Google Now can do and rather creeped out by it when they realise what it means. But that’s really the thin end of the wedge when it comes to metadata for security purposes.
I happen to believe in a right to privacy.
What’s my information is mine, and whether or not I have (for example) particular religious preferences, sexual preferences, even preferences when it comes to chocolate bars (to use one of Trevor’s examples) is my information to either freely give out, selectively give out or guard fervently.
It’s my choice to do so, and in a world of greater interconnected communication that right to privacy — an individual’s right to choose what information is disseminated and where — is, I believe, more vital than ever.
The Google example, or Trevor’s Caltex one are red herrings, because there’s an implicit contract in place. Google offers its services for free because it’s collecting marketing data about you, and buried somewhere deep in its terms and conditions will be statements outlining exactly that. Virtually nobody reads them — here they are if you want some insomnia cures — but they exist. Use the service, agree to the contract.
Mandatory metadata collection takes away from all of that. You don’t have a choice, and in today’s world with stronger internet-based services every day, it’s not as simple as “falling off the grid” if one happens to be privacy minded. There are strong — and quite economically sensible — pushes to move all government services online, for a start.
Metadata has an immense amount of potential power, and there’s scant detail about what would or wouldn’t be considered as part of the proposal. Apparently Attorney-General George Brandis hasn’t disclosed exactly what type of data will be collected, but there will be “safeguards” to protect privacy. Trevor’s piece covers off on this talking about the police getting in trouble if they look up people’s details without authorisation.
I’ve got two problems there with that line of thinking.
Firstly, the old axiom about only being in trouble if you get caught comes into play, but even there, if data did leak out for whatever reason to another body with the capability for harm to an individual, then the harm has already been done. By all means punish those who leak, but in many cases it won’t mitigate the harm, especially if there’s faulty data to begin with.
Then we come to the second half, and essentially the crux of Trevor’s argument, and it’s summed up thusly:
I’m well aware that people on “my side of this debate” are often heard to say “I’ve got nothing to hide, so why worry” – but seriously – what the hell have you got to hide? And how important do you think you are that anyone at any level of Government gives a rats’ what you’re doing on the internet.
Once again, what I have to hide is my business, and for a government whose political leanings tend towards the personal responsibility side (“lifters, not leaners” etc), it’s surprising that personal privacy doesn’t rank more highly on the hit list.
Actually, I suspect it does — consider the outrage around whether or not the leaking of Frances Abbott’s scholarship was in the public interest — but again that’s arguably more of a political play than anything else.
I’m equally concerned at this line of thinking given that the current administration absolutely adores secrecy.
If there’s a question that they don’t want to answer, they either don’t say anything at all, or run away from it, or, in the incredibly disgusting case of Australia’s current refugeee policy, cite “operational matters” as though that’s a smokescreen that covers anything and everything. If your data was to leak out, would you even be allowed to know?
Before it’s quoted back at me, I’m all too well aware that data retention was also a Labor policy when they were in power.
I wasn’t happy with it then, and oddly enough, neither was Malcolm Turnbull, stating at the time that it was “the latest effort by the Gillard Government to restrain freedom of speech” and that it “seems to be heading in precisely the wrong direction. Surely as we reflect on the consequences of the digital shift from a default of forgetting to one of perpetual memory we should be seeking to restore as far as possible the individual’s right not simply to their privacy but to having the right to delete that which they have created in the same way as can be done in the analogue world.”
Naturally, it’s even worse for the media, because metadata such as phone calls, email records and the like can absolutely blow the lid off confidentiality with all kinds of sources, both big and small.
But this isn’t just a media issue. If you shout the private details of your life from the rooftops — which is what the issues that Trevor brings up around Twitter or Facebook cover — then fair enough, you’ve surrendered that information publicly.
Anything else, however, should be your call to divulge. That’s the bottom line here.

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