How much do you value privacy?

Who has access to the plethora of information collected from surveillance devices, such as CCTV cameras and facial recognition technology, and what safeguards are in place to protect people’s privacy? 

How did we become so extensively monitored with minimal objection, subject to bipartisan surveillance bills that are introduced with negligible debate?

These are questions that drive Leah Shanley, from Edith Cowan University, Western Australia, and her colleagues in their research on the tension between security and privacy.

They recently authored a paper, published by the International Symposium on Human Aspects of Information Security and Assurance, and are currently running a survey of Australians’ attitudes in light of recent developments.

“The recurring themes appear to be surveillance solutions introduced on the back of fear-based events,” says Shanley, “for example 9/11 attacks, with airport scanners and increased CCTV in airports, or COVID-19, among the more noteworthy.”

It’s an issue of mounting concern with bills currently going through federal parliament and last year’s proposed ASIO legislation, which has been described as “one more step towards a totalitarian state”.

For the most part, Shanley says people are law-abiding and compliant with reasonable levels of surveillance purported to stop terrorism or spread of the virus, but not much attention is paid to when – or if – these measures are rolled back.

Australia’s COVID-safe apps are a case in point. While strong legislative protection was eventually built into the federal app, that has all but died and people are now using the state apps. However, these weren’t afforded the same level of scrutiny and most people probably don’t realise they aren’t covered by the same protection.

“Whilst the state government says your information is safe, in reality that is simply not true,” says Shanley. “There are too many factors when it comes to information protection.”

These include complexities surrounding international law obligations, federal and state laws, law enforcement and intelligence, and jurisdiction concerns such as contractual agreements between our health department and Amazon Web Services with respect to COVIDSafe data.

“Data collection has become somewhat of a commodity and has potential to attract a very lucrative but disingenuous market,” says Shanley.

And the Australian government doesn’t have the best track record. Shanley and colleagues note, for instance, the flawed technology that compromised vulnerable people in the Robo Debt scheme and their treatment of journalists who exposed secret plans to spy on citizens.

Australians have long been wary of threats to their privacy, and public trust is vital for the acceptance of security measures. The Hawke government’s proposed national identity card, for instance, “was quickly consigned to the waste bin of history,” write Shanley and team.

But they ask if this could be sneaking through the back door with the National Facial Recognition Biometric Matching Capability, announced in 2015, and the provision of driver’s licence details and photos to the National Driver’s Licence Facial Recognition System by most states.

“The end result will probably result in the driver’s licence becoming by stealth what Australians had collectively rejected with the Hawke Government (the national identity ‘Australia’ card).”

Should we be worried?

“Yes,” says Shanley, “in my opinion data collection and the laws that purport to regulate the use of information and identity matching are in disarray. We don’t want to wind up in a surveillance state, or using a social credit system.

“Balancing information privacy and security with democratic freedoms is a complex but important task.”

It can be a slippery slope, as the researchers conclude with a 2009 quote from Lucia Zedner: “Do we want to be completely secure in a police state?”

To explore contemporary Australian attitudes with the changing times, they first conducted a pilot study with 86 university students (yielding 60 valid responses) between May and August 2020. 

Data are unpublished but Shanley says 73.8% of respondents had a general concern for privacy, ranging to varying degrees from keeping voting preferences and religious beliefs private and freedom to make unmonitored phone calls to concerns about identity requirements at venues, misuse of information and data sharing with foreign governments.

They have more trust in government entities (66%) than the private sector – especially the media, which only 20% of responders trusted.

With the current survey the team aims to gather a larger, more representative data set to confirm the reliability of the pilot results and capture up-to-date insights into people’s attitudes – which appear to be changing as more people express concerns, Shanley notes.

“Moving forward we hope to get a snapshot of what attitudes towards privacy, surveillance and security are in Australia,” she says, “with the goal of informing policy and improving transparency.”

To complete the survey, respondents must be Australian citizens aged 18 or over.

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