Someone’s looking at you: Welcome to the surveillance economy

July 26, 2013

One of my favourite Boomtown Rats tracks is “Someone’s looking at you”, written by Bob Geldoff and released as the third single from The Fine Art of Surfacing. I wanted to include the lyric as a chapter header in my 2007 book Communication and New Media: From broadcast to narrowcast, but it was too expensive to secure the rights. It is so much easier on here, and free.

I wrote two chapters on media and surveillance in that book and always wanted to return to the theme because I think we all need to be concerned about how much surveillance there is of all of us in our daily lives.

The paranoia of Thatcher’s Britain comes through in the song and I like this verse and chorus because it is about resistance:

You may as well
Shout it from the roof
Scream it from your lungs
Spit it from your mouth
It could fall on deaf ears to indulge in your fears
There’s a spy in the sky
There’s a noise on the wire
There’s a tap on the line
And for every paranoid’s desire…

There’s always Someone looking at you.
S-s-s-s-someone looking at you…
They’re always looking at you. [Bob Geldoff, 1979]

We take it for granted today, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried.

I have returned to the theme of surveillance to kick-start some more thinking and writing on the subject. It begins with this piece written for The Conversation.

The surveillance society

Everything that fugitive whistle-blower Edward Snowden has revealed about America’s global espionage network PRISM should make you alert and alarmed. His exposé shows that we are clearly living in a well-established surveillance society. But it also reveals more than that: surveillance is at the heart of the global digital economy too.

One document revealed that in 2001 the Australian telco, Telstra, signed an agreement to allow US spy agencies access to data about its American customers. However, according to the agreement, Telstra is not permitted to let other governments access the same data.

In response, Telstra issued a brief statement only saying that the agreement reflected its contractual obligations at the time and the revelation has received only limited media coverage.

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Facebook and surveillance: “You can leave your hat on.”

January 20, 2009

The lesson here is when you’re committing a crime, no matter how hot it gets, keep your balaclava on.

Queenstown police nabbed a burglar after posting security camera images on the internet networking site Facebook of him trying to crack a safe.

Police said it was the country’s first such Facebook arrest and they would use the site again to fight crime.

“Facebook was very handy, and it’s a good little tool,” said Senior Sergeant John Fookes. [NZ Herald]


Spies know who you talk to – surveillance society grows daily

September 20, 2007

Spy laws track mobile phones – Technology – smh.com.au

The Australian government is set to introduce new security laws that would allow the nation’s spy agencies to secretly track mobile phone and internet use without obtaining a warrant.

There’s no doubt that this increases the amount and breadth of social surveillance that can be used against political opponents as well as potential criminal activity.

A report to the British Privacy Commissioner last year outlines the extent of a surveillance society and the development of ‘pre-emptive’ surveillance like that proposed in the Australian legislation.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the clock is ticking and we are now six minutes to midnight on the ‘doomsday clock’ to becoming a fully-fledged surveillance society.

This is confirmed by an announcement this week that Dubya wants to extend surveillance laws in the USA


School yard surveillance – another brick in the wall

September 3, 2007

Schools adopt swipe cards for toilet breaks – National – smh.com.au

Some schools in NSW (Australia) are adopting drastic measures to cut truancy and to stop students smoking between classes.

Swipe cards for toilet access and SMS alerts to parents of absent children are being trialled at some schools and there’s even talk that students will be fingerprinted for identity and movement purposes next year.

Ryde Secondary College students are required to run an identification card through a card reader if they are late, need to leave early, go to the sick bay, see the principal or visit the toilet during class time. A print-out is created – featuring a photo of the student and log in and out times.

Mr Reardon said problems with students smoking when they moved around the grounds during class times, using a toilet break as an excuse, had reduced dramatically. But, he acknowledged: “We’ve got to be sure it’s not a draconian thing.”

The school will trial a fingerprinting system next year.

The company behind the technology, Academy Attendance, is raking in the profits and pushing school surveillance systems. What would happen if a parent decided their kid shouldn’t be swiped in and out of the toilet during breaks, or objected to finger-printing?

How can we improve your school?
Discussions with schools has highlighted the need to improve efficiency and productivity. Academy IT Services can significantly improve existing systems.

Academy has focused its research and development towards providing a system to track student movements in and out of school. To achieve this outcome Academy IT Services is proud to provide the Academy Student Attendance System. This system is currently used by schools across Australia and interfaces with existing School Administration Systems.


Facebook – the new online surveillance tool?

August 27, 2007

Facebook Gets Personal With Ad Targeting Plan – WSJ.com

Social networking is really booming. Sites like Myspace and Facebook allow users to upload tons of information about themselves, photos, embarrasing admissions and all kinds of stuff.
Now Facebook has worked out a way to marketise this aspect of the clickstream.
I think we should all think carefully before posting anything about ourselves online.


Facebook and surveillance

July 23, 2007

I received this email from a colleague today. He’s asked me not to use his name. It’s not paranoia, just a precaution.

I very much like the idea of the police or employers trowelling Facebook and similar to gather Evidence.

As this On line social networking craze escalates, one will be regarded with suspicion if/when one Does Not have a Facebook site orequivalent. What’s wrong with you? What have you got to hide? I get looked at weirdly because I don’t use a mobile phone.

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Scott Morrison is as funny as a dose of the clap

October 17, 2019

Dr Martin Hirst has lost his sense of humour when it comes to the Morrison Government. Instead, he argues, we need to be angry, not silently sniggering up our sleeves.

THE JOKES come thick and fast from ScoMo. This week, we’ve had the undignified crack that he’s going to name the taxpayer-funded RAAF jet that flies him around “Shark One” at great expense.

[First published on Independent Australia on 14 September 2019]

That’s our plane, not Morrison’s, but his complete lack of shame and his forced cornpoke humour are two of his better qualities.

Thankfully, Twitter chastised him over this idiocy.

Despite the PM’s attempt at portraying the blokey-jokey good guy, it’s getting harder to see the funny side of Australian politics. I’m not cracking a smile, I’m seething with rage.

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I have come to the terrible but sober conclusion that we can no longer laugh off the Morrison horror show. The clowns are actually ideological axe murderers in pancake makeup and funny shoes.

Are you asleep, or are you Chris Uhlmann?

Seriously, if you’re not disturbed and angry by the direction the Morrison Government is taking Australia today, you are either asleep or you’re Chris Uhlmann writing in the Nine stable “news” rags.

Uhlmann applauds ‘the sound of silence out of Canberra’ and claims that the ‘silent majority’ of Morrison’s so-called “quiet Australians” would also be quietly getting on with their quiet, boring lives.

‘Normal people would rather get on with the task of, hopefully, making an uneventful path from sunrise to sunset. For many that isn’t easy and their simple wish of the Government is it not make the task any harder.’

The whole idea of a “silent majority” is a discredited Nixonian talking point from the late 1960s and has no basis in sociology, political science or people’s lived experience. For Uhlmann, it is a convenient meme on which to hang his barely-literate gaslighting of the electorate. For Trump and Morrison – and enablers like Uhlmann – the idea of a silent majority supporting their populist rhetoric is a convenient political myth.

Personally, I’d rather engage with outrage on Twitter than spend any money, time or effort arguing with Chris Uhlmann and, it seems, so would plenty of others.

Why I’m not laughing anymore

I have had several swings of mood since the May Election. You may recall that in early July I wrote about the deep grief I was feeling at the time and how I was almost immobilised with depression.

Since then, I’ve cheered up and been amused by the stuff-ups, the malapropisms and goofy, daggy dad schtick that we’ve been enduring from Morrison. The Government’s lack of policies and ham-fisted management of just about everything actually gave me a false sense of hope that things really wouldn’t get any worse.

Two weeks ago, as we approached Morrison’s first full year in the PM’s office, the scales fell from my eyes and it became apparent that these jokers were deadly serious. The lack of clear policy and the absence of a mandate following the close Election result are not an obstacle to achieving the Government’s ideological mission.

It is the mission itself that motivates Morrison, his cabinet colleagues and his power-hungry backbenchers like “Freedom Boy” Tim Wilson. The mission is to remake Australia as a nation without compassion, empathy and opposition to Morrison and Dutton’s authoritarian instincts. It’s a change that started under Abbott, was briefly disrupted by Turnbull’s obsequious vacuity, but is now back in full battle dress.

The mission goal is an impoverished, embittered, divided Australia; a country where “having a go to get a go” means wealthy Liberal and National Party donors standing by the back door waiting for handouts, kickbacks and sinecures paid for by the reduction of everyone else to the status of serfs. It’s as if Morrison and company (that’s how they view the Government) are wanting to return Australia to the status of a penal colony.

The gulags on Manus and Nauru and the locking up of refugees in a PNG gaol are one obvious symbol of this. Sending the Tamil family from Biloela, Priya and Nadesalingam Murugappan and their two Australian-born children to exile on Christmas Island under heavy, expensive and ridiculous armed guard is another potent sign of where we are headed.

Dutton has all but confirmed this with his casual use of the awful Trumpian term “anchor babies” to describe the Murugappan children. It’s a racist lie coming out of Trump’s mouth and it’s racist when Dutton drops it into our language. Unfortunately, most of our political journalists are so shallow and compromised they started normalising it within hours.

However, it is not yet possible for Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison to send Australian citizens into exile so easily. Instead, we are facing imprisonment in our own homes — a permanent lockdown of our rights as citizens and constant surveillance of our lives, both public and private.

I don’t need to give chapter and verse on all of the outrages. If you’re reading Independent Australia, you are very much aware of them.

Let’s just summarise the issues in these headlines:

‘Utter lies: the truth on boat arrivals and border protection’

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‘Ensuring Integrity bill takes union busting to a whole new level’

‘Peter Dutton: crushing people because he can’

‘Littleproud fiddles while Australia burns’

‘Australia’s financial report card: Worst performance in the developed world’

A fundamental break with our egalitarian history

I don’t want to sound overly melodramatic, but I think we can now see the outline of our future if Scott Morrison wins the current rounds of the culture war against the rest of us.

Our civil society is being hollowed out and replaced with a 24/7 panopticon in which our rights are gradually and forcefully taken from us.

Everyone who works for a living or who is currently on any kind of welfare payment is under threat here. The attacks on workers’ rights don’t begin and end with attempts to clamp down on union action. The Government’s refusal to lift the poverty-level rate for Newstart and other benefits and plans to drug test unemployed people are further ways that Morrison and company want to impose workhouse levels of discipline on working people.

As for action on climate change, we are facing an existential crisis; the planet is dying, the eastern coast of Australia is going up in flames and once-flowing rivers are so dry that the Government has a crazy scheme to relocate fish in the outback. At the same time, the Morrison Government is refusing to take climate change seriously.

The less said about the disgraceful performance of this Government the better. At least a handful of ministers should be resigning over this deliberate lack of action. Start with David Littleproud and Angus Taylor.

I could go on, but I’m out of time, space and words to play with.

Australia was once known for its open and egalitarian ethos — it is being stolen from us. The time for laughing is over. We can no longer “grin and bear it”, it’s time to fight back.

You can start by joining the global climate strike on 20 September. It’s not just for kids — it’s our planet, too.

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Social media doesn’t shoot people. Nazis with guns shoot people

March 20, 2019

There’s been an inevitable backlash against social media in the wake of the Christchurch massacre. Mainstream news organisations have been quick to jump on the bandwagon of blaming Twitter, Facebook and sections of the more obscure ‘dark web’ for the radicalisation of young men into the political orbit of white nationalists. However, I don’t think we should blame social media for the rise of Nazi shooters.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrrison is among those calling for a “crackdown” on social media supposedly to prevent further terror incidents. However, this is putting the cart before the horse and then flogging the cart even though the horse is, itself, almost dead.

And of course, The Australian is out there whipping away hysterically.

Yes, a strained metaphor, but I think an apt one.
Let me explain.

It’s easy to blame the machines

The idea that social media is somehow responsible for capturing the minds of susceptible people and turning them into homicidal racist monsters is easy to grasp and it’s comfortable; but it is wrong. It plays to a generalised anxiety about the potentially harmful effects of too much technology and it seems to offer an easy solution, but it really means more surveillance for all of us.

If the technology itself is a corrupting force, then why don’t we just ban it or at least impose some proper controls mandated by a responsible authority – the government, for example.

The simplicity of this idea is its major appeal, but there is a secondary appeal in this argument, one that is very useful for politicians, mainstream media and journalists seeking to deflect any blame that might attach to them.

I am not questioning the idea that social media channels and platforms can play a role in ‘radicalising’ some people, particularly teenagers. In fact, there are some forms of online radicalisation I’m in favour of. A good example is the recent global student strike around the lack of serious political action to stop climate change. The fact that hundreds of thousands of school and university students can see their peers take action and feel inspired about joining in is a good thing. However, the real political movement coheres on the street, or as we increasingly feel it necessary to emphasise, in the ‘real’ world as opposed to the ‘cyber’ world.

The climate striking students gain an initial sense of solidarity from being able to connect online via Facebook groups, WhatsApp and other chat forums, but they really only see the real power they have when they come together and march, rally, paint placards, chant and, in some cases, defy their parents and headmasters to cut school for the day.

It is instructive to note that when politicians wanted to attack the climate marches and berate the students into staying in class, it wasn’t social media that they chose to blame it was mysterious ‘adult’ activists pulling the strings and manipulating pliable and suggestible young minds.

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Politicising human rights – what a terrible thing to do

June 9, 2015

So, finally, in 2015 Australia the debate about human rights has become politicised.

 

It’s about time really, human rights should be a very political question. You know, discussing the politics of who does and who does not support universal human rights should be regular dinner time conversation in most normal families, or pub chatter for the more inebriated among us.

In any civilised country, one that prides itself on taking human rights seriously, the application or removal of those rights should be a matter of political discourse and close attention. Which, sadly, leads me to surmise that Australia today is losing some of its civility.

Our ability to have a sensible and sensitive conversation about the importance of human rights and to debate the failures (or the rare successes) of our government (of any stripe) in promoting human rights seems to be diminishing.

Instead the media thugs and government bullies are out to silence one of the last bastions of criticism of Australia’s uncivil and inhumane refugee policies and to shut down debate about the steady erosion of our rights through the over-reach of surveillance and through the fear-mongering around terrorism.

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Tony Abbott: Is he the “selfie” Prime Minister?

May 31, 2015

Tony Abbott has been Australia’s Prime Minister now for 630 days.

And what did he do to celebrate this Sunday?

He went on a “charity fun run“, just like he’s done for several years.

I am struggling to find evidence that even one of those long 630 days was spent in the service of the country he claims a mandate to lead.

All I have seen of our Dear Leader is a man intent on pandering to his own personal whims and the causes of moribund neoliberalism.

How many times over the past nearly two years has Tony Abbott donned the lycra, or the budgie smugglers, or the running shoes to demonstrate his Putinesque qualities and his hard-man physical prowess?

Has this man got nothing better to do than exercise

Has this man got nothing better to do than exercise

It’s been too many days in my book, and certainly enough to make it look like Abbott is a narcissist who has not really grown out of his teenage years. He still seems to live in the days of student politics, when he could ignore democratic procedures and run a student union like his own personal fiefdom.

In those days Abbott played to his loyal fanboys, the rugger buggers and college thugs. He still thinks this is his main constituency today.

This is now what Abbott is doing the the country. He plays to the fanboys, the racists and the fearful.

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