Monday, January 21, 2008

'Australians Now Support Big Brother Society'

Will 2008 Herald The Rise Of 'The Unplugged'?

Why did Australians fall so easily and with so little dissent into the clutches of a surveillance society?

We used to cherish our privacy and gag at the thought that our every movement outside the home could be captured on video and stored away somewhere. Or that our personal details, our opinions, our beliefs and our favourite food choices could be databased and monitored for the rest of our lives.

Many of are still repulsed at even the idea of every Australian being issued with a centrally controlled and fully databased ID card. But it's already here, even if it is spread across your driver's lisence, supermarket loyalty cards, credit cards, e-mail records and search engine queries. All those records will be centralized soon enough, if they aren't already. If you're working, or on social security, you've already been issued with a unique numerical ID - it's called your tax file number.

Echelon is yet another of those once absurd conspiracy theories that has turned out to be an everyday fact. Every phone call, every e-mail, every fax, every text message, every web page you visit can surveilled if you are deemed to be "of interest", or if you are associated with people "of interest", even if those friends or family members haven't committed a crime, yet.

Speak, type or text the right 'key word' and a record of your communication will be stored within Echelon. Three years or two decades from now, your teenage years joke text message about terrorism or 'bombing' may come back to haunt you.

And why did you buy so many tubs of pool chlorine during the second half of 2008? Your store loyalty cards are compiling details of your shopping habits that will be analysed and evaluated, in years to come, in ways that even the techheads at Coles and Franklins haven't yet considered.

Did you even stop to think about how all that personal information about yourself that you so freely typed into MySpace questionnaires and quizzes and into Facebook profiles will be used? Do you even know that all that info will never disappear, and that those personal details are already being traded and circulated and analysed and used to build profiles of you, your emotions and your thought patterns?

And if you think that using fake names or profiles on MySpace or Facebook will keep you safely anonymous, think again. That little bout of Googling your own name a few months ago IDed you to your computer's IP address.

Big Brother isn't just watching you. He's already inside your head and saving back-ups of your thoughts, your dreams, your passions and desires.

Perhaps the next great trend amongst Australians will not to become more 'wired' but to become one of 'The Unplugged' - lose the cell phone, burn the Blackberry, delete the MySpace and Facebook profiles, shred the loyalty cards and credit cards, hang up on anyone who rings your home and starts asking questions for a 'survey' and only use internet browsers that allow you to wipe your personal information and browsing records every time you end a session online.

Why make it any easier for them to know so much about you? They already know enough.

From the Sydney Morning Herald :

Increasingly Australians are being bar-coded and scoped. Their whereabouts are checked, along with the company they keep. How they make money, how they spend it - all is monitored in the name of progress, profit and private and national security.

Australians had been sceptical about the surveillance industry and associated identity checks. But the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, and subsequent terrorist outrages changed much of that. And while law enforcement agencies' activities have expanded considerably to fit new laws and demands, other surveillance industries and programs have enthusiastically jumped on the "new world order" band wagon and grown exponentially.

Data-matching and data-mining allow information generated by people doing ordinary things - such as using automatic teller machines, paying with credit cards, using shopping loyalty cards or smartcards, writing cheques, renting cars or videos, sending or receiving emails or surfing the internet - to be collected and collated, often without the subject's consent or knowledge.

Once people carefully husbanded their identities, and that privacy was respected. For years the only piece of paper people were happy to carry was a driver's licence.

In 1987 Bob Hawke's government pulled a double dissolution in an attempt to get its proposed Australia Card legislation through the Senate. The ID check for Australian citizens and resident foreigners arose partly out of the ease with which drug runners wandered in and out of the country but voters remained unconvinced.

As a consequence Australians were lumbered with a tax file number, a sort of watered down version of the American Social Security number that, together with the Medicare card, targets small fish by permitting greater scrutiny of the link between welfare and tax.

For the hundreds of thousands who came to Australia as immigrants, the absence of ID checks symbolised the new freedoms they had embraced.

Authoritarian regimes were skewered as Big Brother in George Orwell's book Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949. The two words were synonymous with one-party states and dictatorships for years. However, just as globalisation, the internet and money markets made Australians surrender to a brave new world where surveillance was king, the sense of incipient threat that Orwell's words symbolised was drained away with the 1999 arrival of the reality television franchise that eventually saw totalitarianism give way to "turkey-slapping".

The proliferation of online transactions and a trend towards a cashless society means thieves no longer need to steal a wallet when they can steal an identity.

Billions are being spent to counter identity theft. Research into "gait DNA" enables a computer to make identifications by matching a person's facial image to gait, height and weight. Also being investigated are body odour measurement and ear geometry.

Traditionally Australians have been wary of such "Big Brother" developments but opinion polls show that - like Americans and the English - Australians now tend to support more rather than less surveillance.

But for how much longer?

Could you live your life as one of The Unplugged?