Child sex victims being bent to national security agenda

We are all against cyber-crime – criminal offences done with the aid of a computer – are we not?  And cyber-terrorism – bad guys, and not only jihadist terrorists, using the internet to recruit, propagandise, communicate and, probably transfer money to each other?

And do we not also deplore cyber-war or cyber-sabotage: hacking into computer systems to spy, to steal intellectual property, to capture control of or to damage sensitive national infrastructure or military systems?

So we are, or so we do. They are bad things, and they are problems. No doubt we must do something about them. But simply because government is doing something by no means necessarily guarantees that the thing is the right thing, is in proportion to the supposed danger to the community, or that doing the thing will make much, or any difference. Particularly when most of the money will be going to agencies being less than honest in their presentation of the problem, and more than a bit willing to construct bureaucratic empires in the pretence that they are going to do something about it.

There are a few sure clues to the idea that we are being steam-rollered, and marketed into the idea that we are facing a serious, and increasing crisis from outside. There is, for example, a steady cycle of announcements, invariably with the prime minister, and sundry others from the police and security systems, declaring threats from abroad [code for China, whose eye we poke with a burnt stick once or twice a day.] The instances or proofs of the problem — an external attack on the computer systems of a government department or the ANU — will not be particularly new. Nor will the new measures government says it will be taking. For more than a year, indeed, ministers have been repackaging old announcements as if they were new, or giving slight details of intended spending from sums long ago appropriated.

What is notable is how much the proffered rationale seems to depend on fighting paedophilia. Even at the police level, the PR doesn’t talk of fraud, or identity theft, or, these days, even much about terrorism. But it is as much involved in the security rationale for new powers, new empires and new resources.

The handy thing about paedophilia, of course, is the inherent suggestion that anyone who doubts the role being assumed, or that the AFP is playing a particularly important role in combating it, must be in favour of paedophilia.  With most cyber-crime having any international dimension, such as the cyber-stealing of credit card details,  the most that police and cyber-agencies can do is warn consumers, establish hotlines at which crime can be reported, then exaggerated, and sympathise afterwards with victims who failed to heed the warnings. That’s unlikely to change with the planned spending of several billion in future years, or from the existence of many more cops and officials on the cyber beat.

Sadly, most of the statistics available on the problem of child sex abuse, child sexual exploitation, and the trafficking of images of abuse are not much to be relied on to make the case that the best chance of reducing the damage is by having more cyber cops at the federal level. First, the overwhelming proportion of crime involving child-sex matters is within state jurisdiction, and lacks that “federal aspect” which has given the AFP the right to march uninvited into pretending to “own” the small tiny proportion of cases involving overseas victims or transactions.

We have had a good deal of publicity about victims who were in state, church or social institutions, including schools, over recent years. The record there has shown that police agencies were for a long time inept at detecting the problem, or in doing anything about it, especially if the institutions were well connected. That includes the AFP at the ACT level. For many years, with child sexual offences as well as physical or sexual violence against women, Australian police were more a part of the problem than of the solution, and often downplayed the issue, helped cover it up, or failed to regard it with the resources it deserved. The record has slightly improved in recent years, but the numbers of new cases (rather than tidying up matters that came to light during the royal commission), does not suggest a great increase in allocation of resources or in police effectiveness. Indeed some people clearly shown to have broken the law still seem to live charmed lives and to have retained, unaffected, close friendships and high reputations with powerful Australians.

But, as the royal commission itself emphasised, the serious problems of abuse in institutions, historical or ongoing, was put a tiny proportion of the cases of child sex abuse perpetrated by “friends”, neighbours and relatives of the victim, as often as not within the victims’ own homes. This has been a problem known and understood for many decades, and has been responsible for the creation of welfare agencies focused on child protection, including, in many cases, the further punishment of victims by removing them (rather than perpetrators) from homes, and placing them in institutions.

I want exploited overseas children protected from Australian villains.  But if the federal government were truly focused on  protecting the greatest numbers of children, it would be investing money in improving the quality and the quantity of state and territorial police action against abusers. That police activity embraces actions against abusers or consumers of abuse abroad; indeed, even now most matters “detected” by the AFP go to state agencies for resolution — after the requisite numbers of press statements.

Some might think, however, that potentiation of the AFP role is but a sideshow (if a useful by-product) to the more important national security work. This is defensive — getting government agencies, businesses, and private individuals to take more care to protect themselves. And to detect, prevent or disrupt the activities, here or abroad, of terrorists. And, perhaps, to develop an attack capacity of our own, able to be deployed against our enemies if the occasion arises. “State actors” — Russia, China and North Korea are most often mentioned  — are actively using the internet to “probe” our cyber-defences, to hack in systems with vulnerabilities and extract information and intellectual property, and, sometimes, to wage disinformation wars or seek to influence elections, as in the 2016 US elections.

If the national security risk is so great, why are the rationale so keen on using crime — particularly paedophilia — to garner public support for extensions of its powers, and its budgets? The bid is give our spooks more power to monitor, spy on and exchange information about Australians at home. The rationale should be extending the nation’s sum of knowledge of what our external enemies are doing — the core function of our intelligence system — rather than fighting conventional crime.

It was only a decade ago that the problem was inverted: national security agencies, including the anti-terrorism arm of the AFP were getting extra powers to intrude based on the fear of terrorism. Then the AFP rode on those security coattails. It would soon be using such powers — ones they would never have been otherwise given — in ordinary criminal investigations, including cases of alleged welfare fraud.

It might be all very well if there were checks and balances in the system. But Dutton has never seen a police power he does not like, and does not want to see extended. The prime minister is a policeman’s son, with a policeman’s perspective. There is scarcely a genuine liberal, or sceptical voice at the political table. It is certainly not the Attorney-General, Christian Porter, who ought to have an eye on fundamental liberties.

Dutton’s office has shown that it has no restraint in leaking material obtained from the new powers for partisan political purposes. They are also leaking to friendly media for a current major government project, of maintaining a heightened sense of national security emergency, possibly running to the risk of war with China.  The idea promoted by the foreign minister, Marise Payne, that our stance is seriously independent of the United States is absurd.

Looking prepared to go to the brink — in line with the US presidential election timetable — appears to be a political task to which the national intelligence establishment as much as the political establishment seems to be bending itself  — in ways mirroring (sometimes anticipating) the line emanating from the White House without anything much in the way of evidence of a new threat.

Other, that is, from signs of China’s  high annoyance, even exasperation with the studied and loud criticisms being made by ministers, and the amplification — here and abroad — from News.com media. Thank heavens all of our resident geniuses know exactly how far we can go without getting a massive over-reaction.

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John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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