Addressing the trade-off between online privacy and a surveillance state. How is our digital presence being monitored, harvested and manipulated?

Surveillance State vs. Online Privacy

At the newly created ANU Cyber Institute, two of their guiding questions are:

1. What sort of society do we want to live in?

2. How should we use technology to support and secure that?

This can take many forms, and can include privacy and data collection, internet safety and security, such as phishing and spearphishing, as well as cyber-crime, the dark web, foreign interference, and ultimately cyber war.

Addressing these guiding questions is about being far more aware of how our digital presence is being monitored, harvested and manipulated, as much as it is about the internet providing a platform for millennia-old human activity.

What do we know, what don’t we know, who needs to know, and what will we accept? In many ways, it comes down to what political system we live under.

In a western liberal democracy, notions of civil liberties and fundamental freedoms are, if not written into national law, well-established principles and enshrined in international laws and norms.

However, even in a well-established liberal democracy like Australia, we have no bill of rights, and there is considerable ambiguity over what is private and when.

Rise of the surveillance state

Under autocratic systems, tolerance for publicly collected data, and the social repercussions for non-compliance, are best demonstrated by China’s extensive surveillance state mechanisms linked to its ‘social credit’ scheme.

However, it is news to many that the United Kingdom has the most surveillance cameras per person in the world. Moreover, a new facial recognition program rolled out starting earlier this year.

Given the generational and almost omnipresent threat of terrorist attacks in its iconic capital London, many would think that this re-balance of security at the expense of privacy is for the greater good.

However, there are numerous concerns by civil liberty groups, including alerting citizens to a claimed 81 per cent failure rate. What is also interesting is how citizens are responding.

How do citizens react to the surveillance state?

Compliance in China

In China, it seems citizens comply and are likely to compete for good scores. Otherwise they are punished with low scores, which results in, among other things, having their travel restricted.

Violations of ‘good citizenship’ include jaywalking, playing too many video games and buying too much alcohol.

Dissenters in London

In London, a city with a proud tradition of civil liberty campaigners, a group of dissenters referred to as the ‘Dazzle Club’ have taken to wearing vibrant dissonant makeup patterns on their faces to foil face recognition cameras.

Protests in Hong Kong

In the hybrid democracy of Hong Kong, protesters lasered and physically destroyed street cameras and camouflaged themselves with masks and umbrellas during the 2019 violent street protests.

They also curated a website in Cantonese and English detailing what data smart lamp-posts could collect. In addition, protesters outlined concerns in an Open Letter to the Hong Kong Government.

Their concerns include the use of ‘smart lamp-posts’ that can capture data. These lamp posts not only utilise surveillance cameras, but also can use Bluetooth, RFID, WiFi, and 4G/5G functions. The technology conspicuously captures the movements and data of passers-by.

Emily Roderick, Evie Price and Anna Hart, founders of the Dazzle Club wear makeup designed to confuse facial recognition cameras. Photograph: Cocoa Laney/The Observer.

Dystopia or reasonable precaution?

Are these developments the steps to the dystopias we have all long been aware of? Or are they reasonable precautions to retain control of national security and keep streets safe from crime and violence?

In some ways, it comes down to how we define ‘security’.

In academia, this is a term that continues to defy a common definition. There are many different ways to conceive security. Thus, the dangers arise when we overstep the mark into regime security.

The Social Contract

This is the classic trade-off between privacy and security. In the Hobbesian ‘social contract’, humans, as rational beings, succumb to the Sovereign in order to live in a civilised society.

Working from home due to COVID-19 brings up another element of how we use technology. Staying connected to workplaces, colleagues, friends and family is in the video and messaging platforms we are now flocking to.

Zoom surveillance

This brings up what private corporations might be doing, not just governments.

For example, have you checked the Terms and Conditions regarding the privacy policy, of Zoom? Or of what you must agree to just to access an app?

In a recently published article for the Australian Financial Review, (Paywall) ANU colleagues found that:

Far from simply providing a meeting platform, Zoom collects large amounts of data to analyse its own service, and to provide business customers with some powerful features and tools that may easily be abused.

These include video and audio recordings, audio-to-text transcriptions, detailed network information, advertising IDs and even detailed and intrusive monitoring of what is on the screen of meeting attendees.

Zoom collects much of this information without first seeking the consent of attendees. It also doesn’t properly inform them of what information is being recorded.

Closing thoughts

The questions posed here are important for informed conversations. It is important to discuss what type of community, country and world we want to live in now and in the future, so that we flourish at every level of society.

Already, how many of us might unwittingly have the condition Nomophobia, which is the anxiety that arises when distanced from our mobile devices?

It is all about ‘working back from the inquest’, which in this instance could be something quite dystopian. However, we have the chance to change this before it’s too late, which is what the Cyber Institute is all about.


Dr Stephanie Koorey

Visiting Fellow & Convenor

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