Ingeborg van Teeseling fears that the under the new metadata laws, far more liberties will be abused than protected.
In the last year of the Second World War in Holland, the father of a friend of mine was shot in his groin by the Nazis. He was a member of the Dutch Resistance and one of the people in Amsterdam who was responsible for raids on offices of the Dutch equivalent of the Registries of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Before the war, the Dutch had been meticulous in keeping records of citizens, so when the Nazis wanted to find out where Jewish people lived, all they needed to do was go through the archives. Partly because of this, Holland lost 105,000 of the 140,000 Jews who lived in the country before the war.
In an effort to stop this wholesale slaughter, the Dutch Resistance started burning the Registries down from 1943. But they paid a price for that; hundreds of them died. My friend’s father was one of them. After he had been shot in the groin and tortured for a number of days, he was taken to the Dutch dunes and executed.
Somehow, this story keeps coming back to my mind whenever I hear the word “metadata.” I don’t know exactly what it is (then again, neither does the Attorney-General), but I do know what information can do when it falls into the wrong hands. In Australia, the danger might not be an invading force, but last year, the Immigration Department put the personal details of almost 10,000 asylum seekers on its website by mistake. It probably made interesting reading for the security services in the countries they had just escaped. And who knows what the consequences of that can be? The question is why we are collecting that information. Or, more precisely, why our government feels it needs to know exactly what its citizens are saying and doing – without returning the favour and telling us what they do and why they do it. Look at the extended powers ASIO has been given, even in the last year. In September 2014 they were allowed to monitor entire computer networks, including non-suspect ones. Its officers were granted civil and criminal immunity from prosecution and permitted to spy on Australians overseas. A few months later, ASIO’s “special powers” were extended for ten years, and now there are proposals to not only put control orders on 14-year-olds, but to also detain suspects without charge for 28 days.
And then there is the metadata issue.
Again, the question is why? John Blaxland, the academic who wrote the second instalment in the history of ASIO, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that “the cost of our freedom is eternal vigilance.” I think he is wrong. And he, of all people, should know better. There are a few problems with governments who spy on their citizens. The first one is that the colour of the perceived threat changes over time. In the Menzies-era it was reds under the beds, and ASIO even recruited potential Nazi war criminals in its fight against communism. Since 9/11, the enemy is the Islamic world and its apparent penchant for radicalisation and terrorism. And in fifty years it will be something, somebody else.
Which means that the people who are in the good books now can be next year’s enemy number one.
Apparently, the default mode of governments is to distrust their citizens.
Instead of running the country on behalf of the people who have elected them, they regard them as potential enemies. There is a siege mentality there, and that is dangerous. As far as I can see, this is how it works: you are afraid of (a part of) your subjects. So you put in rules and measures to counter that fear. The consequence of that is that people start thinking about the government as an overzealous parent. So, like children, they push back: climb out of the window, raid the cookie jar, trash the marble table. This gives the government reason to put in more rules and measures. Which cause more resistance, more rules, more resistance, more rules. It is never ending, and more importantly: it does the opposite of what was intended. It does not make society safer. Instead, it poisons the relationship between the government and its citizens.
Benjamin Franklin once famously said that “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” The Enlightenment ideas upon which he based this principle are concepts we desperately need to reinstate. When governments start to behave like autocratic monarchs, it is our job as citizens to remind them that they are there because of us, not to rule against us. We also need to prompt them to remember another core aspect of the Enlightenment: reason. Let’s step back for a moment, take a deep breath, put the fear aside and think. The best defence a democracy has got against people who want to undermine it, is democracy itself. An open society, where free speech and the rule of law govern. By undermining this, we do the work of our perceived enemies for them, while antagonising large groups of people and turning them into new adversaries. They say that doing the same thing over and over again while expecting another outcome is the definition of insanity.
Let’s stop it. Now.