Metadata: the truth is, we like being watched

March 21, 2015

We like being watched. We don’t know it, but we do. In principle we scoff at the idea that Big Brother, government, is keeping its eyes on us, but deep down we long for security and order, and this is so starkly obvious when the order of things shatters to pieces.

The debate surrounding the government’s metadata retention laws has churned out the same familiar arguments. Our privacy is compromised; journalists’ ability to investigate will be lost; the government will use data for its ‘sinister’ ends. We’ve heard it all before. The principle always remains the same: citizens should be free, in a liberal democracy, to go about their day to day lives without notice or care from the powers that be.

It’s a fine sentiment, but we unknowingly contradict it by our actions when something shatters our comfort. In the wake of the tragic murder of Doncaster schoolgirl Masa Vukotic, we were thankful that the killer was identified within 24 hours thanks to public surveillance. Thank heavens the security cameras at the local Primary School and on our local bus network caught this monster fleeing from his heinous act, or else he would likely still be on the loose.

Thank heavens the cameras of Brunswick Street captured Adrian Ernest Bailey moments before his horrific murder of Jill Meagher. In both cases our community breathed a collective sigh of relief that something was there watching, enabling our protective forces to do their job efficiently. Of course, in both cases, it didn’t prevent the tragedy from occurring, yet it enabled police to prevent further malicious acts on the part of the offenders.

As Sean Price’s horrendous string of crimes afterward suggests, the longer he was on the streets the greater the danger to the community. It’s highly probable that he would not have turned himself in were it not for the fact his face was sprayed all over the media.

How many of us have walked these streets oblivious to the fact that we’re being watched? How many of us care? We have nothing to hide.

Metadata is much the same. The government is proposing that telecommunications companies retain data for up to two years. Data. They do not, and cannot, have the power to monitor the content of communication. What they will have is a log of calls made, websites visited, dates and times of emails exchanged and so forth. What’s the concern? A citizen going about their everyday business would never give security agencies’ cause to even look at their data. Nothing to hide, nothing to worry about.

It’s curious that we are so willing to divulge our personal details to social media networks and online purchasing sites, who can and do use our data through a fine mix of complex algorithms to market content to suit our track record of needs and wants. Yet we are uncomfortable with government having access to data that’s already held by providers. Why?

The press is worried this Bill will compromise investigative journalism as it will serve as a disincentive for whistle blowers to open lines of communication. This is hyperbole at best, and should we as a community be prepared to protect sources that may be complicit in illegal activity themselves?

The fact is that the internet has been both a blessing and a curse. It has opened up lines of communication and information on an unprecedented level, but it has also compromised the ability of sovereign law enforcement bodies to protect the security of its citizens. The fine line between civil freedom and the need for security will forever be a point of tension in a democratic society, but it’s security that we value as much as our freedom, and both need to be guarded.

Australians were horrified last Sunday when 60 Minutes aired its investigation on Peter Scully, the vile paedophile who ran a murderous child porn ring from the Philippines for four years. Scully abused a child as young as 18 months. The scariest part? He was providing content for a billion-dollar child sex industry that feeds off the internet. Faceless predators walk among us, protected by the blanket of anonymity.

We want these monsters to be caught. We want them eradicated. We want our security forces to protect our communities, our children. We want the comfort of knowing we’re safe. When something happens, we’ll ask who was watching. We’ll ask what was being done to protect us.

It’s an interesting paradox. We like to feel assured that our protectors are monitoring the other, but we squirm at the thought of being monitored ourselves.

At its most basic level, this debate can be singled down to a question: what do you have to hide? If the answer is nothing, then feel assured that Big Brother is watching those that do.

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