This correspondence is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 10: Friends, Allies and Enemies.
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“Data Driven” by Danielle Cave
Intelligence agencies undoubtedly need to adapt if they want to operate successfully in an endless sea of data. They are facing new challenges – like COVID-19 – but, as per the warnings of speculative fiction, intelligence must be tempered by a nuanced understanding of the order being protected. This has been the subject of speculation since Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Jack London’s The Iron Heel laid the groundwork for George Orwell’s dystopian vision of the future in Nineteen Eighty-Four. While we are not, perhaps yet, sleepwalking into a world of total surveillance and repressive control, democratic nations are increasingly placing limits on freedom in the pursuit of order.
Danielle Cave discusses several technical challenges to the mining, scraping and hoovering up of open-source content from a digital world, but largely omits the ethical issues. Unprecedented access to data raises questions about our rights as citizens. Public and private organisations can now access a wide range of information about us, often without our direct knowledge and with our tacit consent. We rarely realise the access we give away when accepting terms and conditions to download a smartphone app, to join a public wi-fi network or to auto top-up cash on a travel card. The means by which data is gathered and used must be better understood and better overseen. To evoke Cave: “The complexities of this relationship won’t change anytime soon. Our political leaders need to learn how to talk about it.”
Data gathered by smart apps can improve decision-making. It can, for instance, help city planners ensure that the traffic system copes with evacuation routes in times of crisis. But the same tools can enable covert tracking – easily achieved by cross-referencing a live feed from a CCTV camera with facial recognition software. Real-time tracking can also occur through almost any wi-fi device without our knowledge. If you leave the wi-fi ‘turned on’ your device will be actively scanning for nearby connections, which means your device transmits a probe request to available networks nearby. In this probe is a unique hardware identifier, called a MAC address, allowing anyone who can “see” the signal to access the unique hardware code, identifying the owner. Cross-reference the appearance of that address on other network towers, and anyone with access can effectively track where a person is and has been. These technologies, already in use to enforce quarantine compliance during the COVID-19 pandemic, raise concerns about privacy, as well as the right to free movement and free association. Legislative, regulatory and other safeguards must adequately protect citizen rights, particularly from government attempts to “nudge” behaviours and from exploitation by for-profit interests.
The Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis report Democracy 2025 shows that trust in Australia’s democratic institutions is declining. As trust in the state diminishes, safeguards for citizen rights become essential. We must have confidence that our digital footprint is not abused in the name of intelligence-gathering or national security from never-ending crises.
At least sixty countries have adopted a digital tracking and tracing system during the COVID-19 pandemic. In almost all cases there have been concerns over the collection, storage and appropriate use of this data. There is a need to ensure that only necessary data is collected, for scientifically valid reasons, and that collection, analysis and storage is limited to the duration of the crisis. The invasive nature of these apps abrogates rights such as privacy, which is protected only by a loose covenant of general guidance rather than by specific laws.
Privacy must become a collective right in this age of information. It is weakened by the phishing, tracking, tracing and scraping of data, lauded by Cave as essential for the business of “intelligence”.
Researchers into algorithmic governance are increasingly concerned that machine learning and predictive analytics are changing our daily lives. As Cave notes, use of these technologies is only going to increase. They are more and more embedded in how we live, buy, shop, learn, communicate and participate in our democracy. The technical challenges cannot trump the ethical challenges in understanding how this will shape democratic systems of social ordering. People are already rebelling against biometric surveillance with masks and reflective make-up to prevent unwanted potential tracking.
While information gathered about us might help govern during a crisis, we cannot accept this as “business as usual”. In a post-COVID world, the gathering and use of data will only deepen; it must be tempered by safeguards against abuse or we may yet lose our personal freedom to a digital cage of information.
Dr Peter Rogers is a senior lecturer in sociology at Macquarie University.
Read Danielle Cave’s response here.