One Rule for Some

5 min read July 2, 2019 at 8:38pm on Data retention, Privacy and Technology

There's been a fairly amazing level of cognitive dissonance going on lately - even by the seemingly ever-increasingly dissonant standards of modern times

Stilgherrian's podcast, The 9pm Edict, featured a grab shortly after the federal election from a rural NSW voter who was very keen for a change of government, but was going to vote for the coalition because she always has. I'm not referring to that, or even the fact that Tom Gleeson managed to win a gold Logie for his "the Logies are crap" campaign. 

Instead, we've seen an unprecedented display of unity from the major media organisations following on from the raids on the home of journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC's office.

The media have been angrily asserting their need for special privilege to "protect their sources" and to "hold government to account".  At the absolute 11th hour, the journalism union, the MEAA was able to convince the Labor party to lobby for special status for journos when mandatory data retention was introduced.

We've seen how well that worked out for them with these raids.

Here's me asking a pertinent question about this on twitter shortly after it occurred:

I could plead my need for special exceptionalism because I'm a doctor and I have an ethical duty to keep my patients' info confidential. Lawyers have lawyer-client privilege. Both ends of the transactions with commercial sex workers are probably interested in their information staying confidential.  And the list goes on. I'm very familiar with this sort of exceptionalism as I see it all the time in my clinical work, as I discussed over on my personal blog.

There's actually two sorts of exceptionalism going on here; first the journos and their relentless pursuit of their own self-interest at the expense of the population as a whole, and the second is the data exceptionalism that I've also discussed previously around open data.

One of the fundamental principles we work by here at Future Wise is that digital technologies are tools, not endpoints. It makes no sense for the government to be able to hoover up vast amounts of digital information about us without a warrant, when opening our mail or tapping our landline phones would require a warrant.

The objective is the same (intercepting communication), the methods achieve the same (inserting the state between the ends of a transaction which would normally be considered private).

Why is a warrant required for you to analyse my mail, but not my email? We've worked very hard at demonstrating that the dichotomy between "metadata" and data is meaningless. The fundamental issue is the state analysing the nature of communication between individuals - regardless of whether it is done by mobile phone, online chat, fountain pen on notepaper or via carrier pigeon and the government suggesting otherwise is disingenuous.

Unfortunately, the ALP is holding firm on its key policy of covering itself in fail about opposing the government on national security, and is sticking with the journalists' line about this being an issue for press freedom, not the intrusion of the state into the private.

Enter the ABC's Emma Alberici who is winning this year's twitter #ratiowatch (that's the ratio of replies to retweets - >2:1 indicates you've probably said something a bit foolish or controversial) with this tweet:


Alberici goes on to point out that she's the mother of near-teenagers - which is understandably concerning. She then justifies this teenage panopticon by highlighting how the internet is different to old fashion conversations because of porn and sexting nude selfies and all of the same digital exceptionalism that we've seen from the government.

While I have some sympathy with the suggestion that cyber bullying differs from playground bullying because kids may experience it outside of school, at the end of the day it is still a form of bullying, just like having your head flushed in the school loos.

But Alberici's suggestion is so bad that it is, in fact, fractally wrong.

First up, it's not the job of the education system to be parenting children. Their job is to teach and encourage kids to develop their mind so they can make their own decisions. I think we all agree that digital literacy is an essential skill for the modern world, and that schools should definitely be teaching more of it.

But these are discussions that parents should be having with their children. Explaining why tweeting stupid things may have consequences. This is a conversation that should begin when children start getting online.

If you let your kids access the internet - is it on their phone? Or a computer in their bedroom?  Did you supervise their online access on a computer in the loungeroom or somewhere else first? Surely that would have been more responsible parenting than trying to outsource policing to the school - who are already over-worked and under-resourced (in the public system at least).

Secondly, why is one of the people who are complaining about the government intruding on their personal space suggesting that we should be putting our teens into a panopticon? We learnt from the Government's excellent* porn filter that teenagers could bypass it in around 30 min. And as Geordie pointed out, kids are always going to be better at this stuff than their parents.

I've made myself unpopular with parents scared of the Dangers of the Internet by suggesting that digital helicopter parenting actually makes kids less safe. Which of course it does. In multiple ways. 

Exceptionalism is not the answer. Surveillance of teenagers is just as bad and wrong as surveillance of journalists and everyone else. The answer is to stand up for the universal right to privacy, and journos would do a lot better campaigning for a bill of rights for Australians (and maybe listening to digital civil society a bit more often) than once again getting the ALP to treat them as more special than all the rest of us.

Image credit : Brown and green fields - Photo by elizabeth lies on Unsplash -  CC0