JOHN STAPLETON: Surveillance in Australia; Part Three.

Jun 1, 2018

The democratic contract is broken. The freedom of Australians to go about their daily lives without being watched by their government has vanished with barely a whisper of protest.

Professor of Law at UNSW George Williams argues that the war on terror has recast the relationship between governments and individuals.

The rushed nature of more than 60 pieces of anti-terror legislation passed since 9/11 has shown up flaws in our political system, including the lack of legal rights to privacy or freedom of speech.

Williams says: “In key areas the powers gifted to ASIO are disproportionate. There are a long list of things where the operation of ASIO now lies outside normal democratic values.”

Barrister Greg Barns, adviser to Wikileaks, argues that with the gifting of ever more powers to ASIO Australian democracy is dying.

He describes last year’s spectacle of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the state premiers lining up to declare their support for the arresting of suspects as young as 10 and their detention for 14 days without charge as sickening.


ASIO can act with virtual immunity and could, during the course of this detention, deprive people of sleep and refuse access to family members, a clear breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Mr Barns says: “ASIO has the capacity to invade every person’s every communication and movement. The use of taxpayer funds to surveil, harass and spy on NGOs and ethnic groups is now ASIO’s bread and butter.”

The best pointer to the present is the past. Dr Meredith Burgmann’s book Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO Files revealed a long history of excessive surveillance of Australian citizens, and misuse of the information thus obtained.

Under the 30-year secrecy rules ASIO more than 10,000 files, often heavily redacted, have come to light.

The targets speak of the waste of public resources that went into their surveillance, and the often slipshod or inaccurate nature of the results.

The organisation formed to root out subversion took upon itself to monitor everyone from gay activists to early feminists. The anti-intellectuality of a military ethos is evident throughout the files.

Humans are mammals. If the feel they are being watched, they instinctively fear they are about to be eaten.

Surveillance causes the perpetrators to act like predators and the targets like prey.

Harvard’s Bruce Schneier, author of Data and Goliath, says psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, novelists, and technologists have all written about the effects of surveillance. It creates ill health and strips people of their dignity.

“There’s a reason why surveillance states aren’t the ones that flourish; it’s profoundly inhumane,” he says.

The Australian government has ignored the negative consequences, hoping only for a docile population.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald, author of the book on Edward Snowden No Place to Hide, writes this model of surveillance creates the illusion of freedom:

The compulsion to obedience exists in the individual’s mind. Individuals choose on their own to comply, out of fear that they are being watched. With the control internalised, the overt evidence of repression disappears because it is no longer necessary. It is a profound victory.

Of all the target groups, Muslims have been the most impacted by the expansion of the surveillance state. It contributes directly to estrangement and resentment, and to the extremism it is meant to resolve.

To a man, or woman, the Muslim minority regard Australia’s participation in Middle Eastern wars as akin to terror, placing them at direct odds with the government.

Muslim spokesman Keysar Trad says: “The fear relating to surveillance is eroding the level of trust of not only authority figures, but of ordinary people, who is monitoring, who is reporting, who is misreading what they see and hear..”

On the opposite side of the panel, members of Reclaim Australia shrug off their surveillance, saying it’s a stupid waste of public money and they are not doing anything wrong. They have already been interviewed by the intelligence services and obliged to sign contracts keeping the discussions secret.

Co-founder Catherine Brennan says. “We are not radicals. Our views are not that far from a lot of Australians. We speak with counter-terrorist officers regularly. People will tell us things before they tell the police, they feel more comfortable with us.”

The key to the lack of protest over surveillance lies with the nature of public debate.

There have long been rumours that agencies have placed personnel or informants throughout Australia’s media organisations.

For decades the CIA has spent millions manipulating the media, including placing personnel into key positions. There is every reason to assume something similar is occurring here.

Journalist Andrew Fowler’s new book Shooting the Messenger says: “The fear of terrorism is used by governments as a way of persuading populations to hand over billions of dollars to fund mass surveillance systems. These systems suck up vast amounts of material around the globe and use it mainly to further their economic, strategic and diplomatic objectives.”

Tuned out, indifferent to the antics of the political caste, the remarkable thing is how quickly the public has accepted all of this: the data retention laws, the jailing of  whistleblowers and journalists, the extensive monitoring of social media by public servants.

Even the detention of 10-year-olds.

The devolution of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation into little more than a government propaganda wing could not have been better illustrated than last year’s story of the Prime Minister’s pledge to introduce legislation to detain without charge people accused of terror related offenses without charge.

For their expert the ABC chose Barrie Cassidy, presenter of Insiders each Sunday, who fulsomely agreed with the government that a loss of civil liberties was necessary in the age of terror.

It was not as if critics were hard to find.

President of the Law Council of Australia, Fiona McLeod SC, said: “It’s the combined shock of having a pre-charge detention of up to 14 days and the revelation they’re going to seek to have this extended to the age of 10. We’re talking about grade four kids. This has crossed the line.”

One of Australia’s most famous sons, whistleblower Julian Assange, has been ignored or reviled by his own government. Exactly the reason why the last word belongs to him:

“The world is not sliding, but galloping into a new transnational dystopia. The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen. Within a few years, global civilisation will be a postmodern surveillance dystopia, from which escape for all but the most skilled individuals will be impossible.”

John Stapleton worked for more than 20 years as a staff reporter on The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald.

A collection of his journalism is being constructed here.

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