Flat White

What’s benevolent about ‘benevolent surveillance’?

13 October 2020

1:20 PM

13 October 2020

1:20 PM

Governments have shown a disturbing desire to control the behaviour of their citizens with technology.

The NSW government intends to ban cash poker machines and require would-be punters “to register for a government-issued gambling card.” But there’s more: NSW pubs and clubs could be required to install “facial recognition technology to identify problem gamblers.”

Apart from being incredibly intrusive — governments should never dictate how you spend your money — a gambling card or camera will likely just push problem gamblers to other sources, such as the variety of apps or online games that act virtually the same as pokies.

But gambling is not the only area in which governments are using technological innovation to modify behaviour.

Although society is growing less reliant on cash, the federal government wants to give this a nudge and ban cash payments over $10,000. Such ludicrous overreach is only possible because of the invention of online banking; which will now be manipulated by government to turn some cash transactions into criminal offences.


Technology can be useful in solving crime. If you were attacked at an ATM while withdrawing $9999 you would like to think the perpetrator could be apprehended using footage from surveillance cameras.

But using a camera to catch a thief is quite different from using one to try and protect you from … yourself.

Government interventions are often justified by claiming to reduce harm. Those people in favour of using cameras to watch you play the pokies will be called virtuous, while those against such an intrusion will be branded as heartless and uncaring.

Interestingly, Australians rightly raise their collective brows at the surveillance state in China. But we seemingly accept similar interventions into our lives because we believe our government to be ‘benevolent’.

However, given governments’ willingness to use technology to nudge us into the ‘correct’ behaviour, you would be justified in concerns about whether they have a limit.

Australian governments are willing to watch you at the pokies, ban legal tender, and control what you see online.

Australians, thankfully, do not have to deal with punitive consequences like the Chinese. So why do we seem happy to let our government take innovations designed to make our lives easier and turn them into coercive tools to enforce ‘good’ behaviour.

Monica Wilkie is a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies.

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