Australians ‘complacent’ to rapid growth in digital surveillance

Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

Saudi human rights activist and author Manal al-Sharif says Australians are complacent about the rapid growth in digital surveillance and the impact of tech and media monopolies on freedom of speech.

Speaking on an Electronic Frontiers Australia webinar, Ms al-Sharif discussed the dangers of “surveillance capitalism” and the weaponisation of social media, along with the growing electronic surveillance powers in Australia.

Saudi human rights activist Manal al-Sharif.

Ms al-Sharif is a Saudi human rights campaigner and author, and is now the manager of cybersecurity strategy at UNSW.

She said Australians need to be more aware of the influence of tech and media monopolies on their activities online and their freedom of speech and expression.

“When I first came to Australia, I thought people were too complacent. Australian media is controlled by a few monopolies which creates this sense of fear, complacency and self-censorship,” Ms al-Sharif said on the panel.

“Living in a democracy is scary when tech manipulation becomes a form of soft oppression. People don’t realise they are being manipulated and that they are victims of persuasive technology. We think we have reached a conclusion from our own freedom of thinking. This is completely misleading.

“Once you go online and are facing a machine that understands who you are, what makes you tick and how to keep you engaged – there is no freedom of choice and freedom of thinking anymore.”

Ms al-Sharif deleted all of her social media accounts after seeing how authoritarian regimes can manipulate these platforms, and said the power of big tech firms shouldn’t be underestimated.

“Social media was once used to give people a voice in authoritarian regimes. That was taken away as soon as these authoritative regimes understood how to use social media in unfair ways,” she said.

“These companies have deep pockets to hire the best data scientists in the world. They use machine learning to understand and predict our behaviours. That’s what makes it so scary. It is not the information that is of such concern but rather the creation and weaponisation of these intimate profiles. We are living in an age of continuous surveillance.”

The growing surveillance powers in Australia have been in the spotlight recently following the passage of the Identify and Disrupt bill last month. This handed “extraordinary” new powers to the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, allowing them to access three new warrants to access the computers and networks of those suspected of conducting criminal activity, “disrupt” their data and take over their accounts covertly.

The powers have been slammed by a range of civil and digital rights and legal organisations as being “extraordinarily dangerous” and marking the next step in the “explosion of the surveillance state”.

Electronic Frontiers Australia policy team chair Angus Murray, who also spoke on the webinar, said the Identify and Disrupt powers need to be viewed as part of the wider picture of powers introduced in the last two decades.

“If it was a lone Act, it may not be as scary. But when you consider it alongside the full suite of power we’ve afforded law enforcement, the reality becomes more alarming,” Mr Murray said.

“The Identify and Disrupt bill is only one in a series of developments that were largely a reaction to the events of 9/11. However, a rapid expansion has occurred over the last five years. Since the metadata retention scheme came into force in 2015, we’ve seen much more intrusive powers arise, notably the Assistance and Access Act. The Identify and Disrupt bill is only the latest development in Australia.”

The legislation serves to “legitimise what is being done by the government”, Mr Murray said, and may serve to damage trust in technology in general.

“Society is enhanced by dissenting views and the ability to have a robust discussion, even if the topic is unpalatable. My concern for the future is that we are seeing a situation where people are becoming less trustworthy of technology,” he said.

“Technology, because of these legislative powers, is then becoming less trusting of the consumers. This leads to a breakdown of trust on both sides.

“The government is opening the gate and tiptoeing along the edge of the line [to totalitarianism] that could very easily pass. If you don’t care about the impact now, you should care about how it could impact your children, or your friends’ children and the future of Australian democracy.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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