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The Face of Surveillance: Malcolm Turnbull’s Recognition Database

Never miss an opportunity in the security business. A massacre in Las Vegas has sent its tremors through the establishments, and made its way across the Pacific into the corridors of Canberra and the Prime Minister’s office. Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull is very keen to make hay out of blood, and has suggested another broadening of the security state: the creation of a national facial recognition data base.

It stands to reason. Energy policy is in a state of free fall. The government’s broadband network policy has proven disastrous, uneven, inefficient and costly. Australia is falling back in the ranks, a point that Turnbull dismisses as “rubbish statistics” (importantly showing that President Donald Trump is not the only purveyor of fanciful figures).

The Turnbull government is also in the electoral doldrums, struggling to keep up with a Labor opposition which has shown signs of breaking away into a canter. The only thing keeping this government in scourers and saucepans is the prospect that Turnbull is the more popular choice of prime minister.

Enter, then, the prism of the national interest, the chances afforded to his political survival by the safety industrial complex. Turnbull, a figure who, when in the law, stressed the importance of various liberties, is attempting to convince all the governments of Australia that terrorism suspects can be detained for periods of up to 14 days without charge. Lazy law enforcement officials, rejoice.

Tagged to that agenda, one he wishes to run by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in Canberra, is the fanciful need for a national facial recognition database. This dystopian fantasy of an information heavy, centralised database is one Australians have historically have opposed with admirable scepticism. It has been something that Anglophone countries have tended to cast a disapproving look upon, a feature of a civilization suspicious of intrusions made by the executive.

In the 1980s, the Australia Card was suggested as an administrative measure of convenience, but deemed by critics to be the first steps in the creation of a national surveillance system that would stretch, extend, and ultimately enlarge the powers of the state.

As law academic Graham Greenleaf would argue in 1987, the Australia Card Bill 1986 would “go beyond being a mere identification system, which the Government claims it is, and will establish the most powerful location system in Australia, and a prototype data surveillance system.”

Had it been implemented, the card system would have applied to people of all ages, and, while not being compulsory, would have made it impossible, in Greenleaf’s sombre words, “for anyone to exist in Australian society without it”. Receipt of pay would not have been taxed at the required rate; receiving health insurance and social security payments would have been impossible.

Importantly, the bill was rejected twice in the Australian senate, generating the grounds for a move by the Hawke government to take Australia to the polls. It proved so unnerving to the senses of the public that the then prime minister quietly shelved it. The civil libertarians had won.

Times have darkened. In Australia, civil libertarianism is in quiet retreat, and the defenders of Big Brother chant with approval. Security and fear are garlanded and worshipped. Criticisms of the authoritarian bugbear are being treated with varying degrees of disdain and scorn.

Turnbull prefers to offer a chilling vision: “Imagine the power of being able to identify, to be looking out for and identify a person suspected in being involved in terrorist activities walking into an airport, walking into a sporting stadium.” It’s always good to imagine, to identify the citizen, to pretend that precision is the order of the day.

Concerns that this data base might be vulnerable to intrusive hacks and enterprising data pinchers is not a concern for the man in Canberra. This is the prime minister who presided over the creation of a data retention scheme on communications, a step deemed inimical in certain parts of the world to liberties (The European Court of Justice certainly thought so in 2016).

“You can’t allow the risk of hacking to prevent you from doing everything to keep Australians safe”. Safety is truly in the eye of the plodding beholder, and such a system risks entrenching a state of insecurity.

The operating rationale here is contempt for privacy, or that the Australian citizen could even care. That’s the nub of Turnbull’s argument: the state is abolishing an undervalued, near irrelevant concept for the sake of security. “I don’t know if you’ve checked your Facebook page lately,” he chided journalists on Wednesday, “but people put an enormous amount of their own data up in the public domain.” Yet another dangerous authoritarian argument for the books.

Over three decades have passed since the failure of the Australia Card. But Turnbull won’t be concerned. The age of fear has been normalised, and those in the business of harnessing and marketing it see opportunities rather than concerns. As Channel Nine’s Sonia Kruger, co-host of the cerebrally light Today Show Extra exclaimed: “I like it. I do. Bring it on. Big Brother, bring it on.”



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  1. Glenn Barry

    The current statements from Turnbull, Keenan and the security chiefs are incongruous, disingenuous and illogical.
    Turnbull has recently evolved from being a ridiculous clown into a dangerous existential threat to this nation.

  2. Percy

    Why worry about it by the time they get ID the person involved could well be in another state or even another country thanks too Turnbulls CLUSTER F#CK of the NBN ..LMFAO

  3. Peter F

    This from a government with multiple members who can’t even recognise which Country they are citizens of.

  4. king1394

    How terrorism is winning: free citizenry accept that their freedoms should be curtailed in the name of safety and security. The sad thing is that there is no evidence that the removal of general freedoms has prevented much in the way of terrorism in this country. For instance, we have seen the apprehension of some silly teenagers and we have been told that they would have carried out some sort of terrorist act on ANZAC Day a few years ago, but the extra layers of security to protect ANZAC Day activities ever since have promoted the sense of unease that is the aim of terrorism.

  5. helvityni

    The Right is getting desperate: draconian laws follow…

    I don’t feel safe with a government that makes deals with Hanson…yes Pauline…

    What next?

  6. Ricardo29

    So much easier to legislate away our civil liberties by generating fear, than get down to the nitty gritty of why we (allegedly) face this heightened threat of terrorism, our involvement in overseas acts of military aggression in places we have no right and very little moral reason for being. If we withdrew our forces from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan we would significantly reduce the rationale for the (again, alleged) threats.

  7. Michael Taylor

    Ironic, isn’t it, Percy, that Turnbull’s reliant on an NBN that works?

  8. Sir Scotchmistery

    The picture between article and comments, of that fish shop woman, put me in mind of a package that arrived recently in the mail.

    It contained a pair of gloves, a small bottle /jar, and a detailed set of instructions on collecting, and submitting to the government, of a shit sample.

    I gave it a few moments of thought, then added it to the landfill bin since I don’t support the idea of a national faecal recognition database.

    As to a facial recognition database, I’m working on a hat for that.

    Now back to work, the lot of you. You have a failed fighter system to pay for. And some fanciful submarines, 40 frigates or some such, and a new law making it illegal to shoot truck drivers delivering shit to that Indian nonce, Adani.

  9. Sir Scotchmistery

    It would be interesting to know how many of our “cluster – fluck” politicos ever read this.

    If one of you are, and you see us threatening mayhem, it’s only against you.

  10. Kyran

    A bit of historical context goes a long way in evaluating the validity of such proposals.
    Back in the 80’s, when Hawke proposed the ‘Australia Card’, there were no national ‘privacy laws’. The call for such a card was one of the reasons the ‘Privacy Act’ came into being in 1988. The Europeans were leading the charge, and even the Americans were contemplating watered down versions under their ‘Safe Harbour’ legislation.
    The Privacy Act has been under attack from the day of its inception. The MasterCard survey on privacy was one of the most comprehensive studies of Australians attitudes to privacy, and has been abused by advocates of ‘big brother’ ever since.
    The data arising from the MasterCard survey confirms that Australians generally are concerned about many privacy issues, and that they are very concerned indeed about several matters, most markedly the intrusive behaviour of governments.
    The results also gives rise to the inference that white-collar Australians have a moderate level of understanding of information technology, and are reasonably prepared to compromise their privacy in return for benefits. Blue-collar Australians, on the other hand, feel powerless against governments and marketers, and are sceptical and nervous about the growth of surveillance technologies.”

    That was in the mid 90’s. Senator Stott Despoja (in my opinion, one of the greatest minds visited on a largely unremarkable parliament), was zealous in her pursuit of privacy regimes that safeguarded Australians, whilst always mindful of the common good.
    “I have advocated a comprehensive national legislated scheme where the community is either covered by legislated privacy principles or develop their own codes of practice with the co-operation of the Privacy Commissioner which are tabled before the Parliament as disallowable instruments. The codes of practice are intended to maintain comprehensive and enforceable privacy protection with powers conferred on the Privacy Commissioner which are similar to those presently set out in the Privacy Act 1988. This is essential to keep pace with the developments in other countries and the advances in information collection and exchange technology. We are all likely to benefit from such a scheme, through continued access to the world data flows and the confidence of consumers that their personal information is adequately protected in their dealings with their information.”

    From the late 90’s (under the Howard government) to now, the Privacy Act has been watered down. Even worse, those it is meant to protect have increasingly been ignored.
    So, here we are in 2017. ‘Big brother’ has won, in the absence of any plausible argument. We will now dispense with ‘due process’ and ‘judicial oversight’. We will now allow government to collect information through one agency, only to be shared with all other agencies, without our consent or agreement. Let alone oversight.
    In the off chance you find this somewhat troubling, have a look at who will be in charge. A bloke who considers he is not only above the law, but that the law should be ignored. A bloke who considers oversight an impediment, rather than governance. A bloke who wants to amalgamate more agencies and departments into his fiefdom, whilst removing any prospect of oversight.
    A bloke without redeeming feature.
    The two words that should ensure the defeat of this absurdity, this insanity.
    Peter Dutton.
    “In the 1980s, the Australia Card was suggested as an administrative measure of convenience, but deemed by critics to be the first steps in the creation of a national surveillance system that would stretch, extend, and ultimately enlarge the powers of the state.”
    Two words. Just two miserable words, should be sufficient.
    Peter Dutton.
    To nick Sir Scotchmistery’s observation, faecal recognition has never been more important.
    Thank you Dr Kampmark and commenters. Take care

  11. wam

    It is not that long ago I got the couple of tooth picks a la the resident 75 year old knight,

    When hawke’s card was mooted my instant thought was the war movies ‘your paper’s please’.

    The company workers who deal with us are the least trained, least educated, the least experience and the lowest access to autonomy. The connecting thread will be the zealous nature with which they carryout their protective duties.

    Face recognition is a rat shit concept but I don’t care that this government does because I access the same super that slimy X now does.and unless my teeth are lost or hair with chemo or a facelift ensues that interferes with the recognition process and presents a poor servant with a dilemma use her/his human judgement over the machine or ignore my plight with a shrug.

    ps our pollies are ignorant in that our licences have our full dob able to be seen from metres away whilst we hard of hearing oldies confirm our names loudly so that is privacy gone?

  12. Michael Fairweather

    I doubt for one minute Turdbull considers the lives of average Australians . This security is only for Turdbulls and his Liberal Ministers protection only. We all know the lives of average Australians mean nothing to Turdbull and his Nazi Government. Unfortunately most terrorists are cowards and go for the soft targets, the people, one day perhaps soon the terrorist will find the back bone to go after the Governments of the country’s they are targeting.

  13. diannaart

    So we are to meekly accept deregulation of business, but complete regulation of us?

    I guess that’s what the LNP calls balance.

  14. Glenn Barry

    The truly frightening element in all of this is just how many of these 14 items are currently applicable to Australia

    Now I won’t limit descriptions of current Government actions to Nazi, as that is too restrictive, especially when there are so many fascist regimes in recent history which combined different elements of this list.

    We are checking the boxes…

    Fourteen Defining
    Characteristics Of Fascism
    By Dr. Lawrence Britt
    Source Free

    Dr. Lawrence Britt has examined the fascist regimes of Hitler (Germany), Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), Suharto (Indonesia) and several Latin American regimes. Britt found 14 defining characteristics common to each:

    Powerful and Continuing Nationalism – Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.
    Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights – Because of fear of enemies and the need for security, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of “need.” The people tend to look the other way or even approve of torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, etc.
    Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause – The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial , ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.
    Supremacy of the Military – Even when there are widespread
    domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamorized.
    Rampant Sexism – The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Divorce, abortion and homosexuality are suppressed and the state is represented as the ultimate guardian of the family institution.
    Controlled Mass Media – Sometimes to media is directly controlled by the government, but in other cases, the media is indirectly controlled by government regulation, or sympathetic media spokespeople and executives. Censorship, especially in war time, is very common.
    Obsession with National Security – Fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses.
    Religion and Government are Intertwined – Governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government’s policies or actions.
    Corporate Power is Protected – The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite.
    Labor Power is Suppressed – Because the organizing power of labor is the only real threat to a fascist government, labor unions are either eliminated entirely, or are severely suppressed.
    Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts – Fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not uncommon for professors and other academics to be censored or even arrested. Free expression in the arts and letters is openly attacked.
    Obsession with Crime and Punishment – Under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations.
    Rampant Cronyism and Corruption – Fascist regimes almost always are governed by groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability. It is not uncommon in fascist regimes for national resources and even treasures to be appropriated or even outright stolen by government leaders.
    Fraudulent Elections – Sometimes elections in fascist nations are a complete sham. Other times elections are manipulated by smear campaigns against or even assassination of opposition candidates, use of legislation to control voting numbers or political district boundaries, and manipulation of the media. Fascist nations also typically use their judiciaries to manipulate or control elections.

  15. Harquebus

    Piece by piece. The erosion of our liberties never stops. The excuse that it is needed to fight terrorists is bullshit and everyone should realize that. The fact that most don’t is concerning.

    Will everyone’s photo be in the database or just those of interest to authorities. Watch what you say or you might become one.

    “The decision to potentially allow the use of the data in civil cases came despite Attorney-General George Brandis claiming in 2014 that the regime would apply “only to crime and only to the highest levels of crime”.”
    “The data retention scheme is not a necessary and proportionate response to the needs of law enforcement and national security”
    “It is difficult to conceive of a civil matter of such consequence as to necessitate access to what is effectively a comprehensive surveillance system.”

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