During the mid-20th century, George Orwell famously wrote a novel featuring the sinister embodiment of surveillance, the Big Brother State. In his 1984, the people of the State were watched closely. Privacy was a thing of the past and rendered virtually impossible due to extreme government overreach.
In 2022, we are beginning to see the ‘fictional’ premise taken up and implemented in various ways by our government and corporations.
Australians have already experienced undue surveillance in several forms throughout the era of Covid. QR code check-ins allowed the government to monitor where we were and where we had been. Vaccine passports weaponised (once private) medical records against citizens to discriminate and segregate.
Now, QR codes have been phased out, but some states are still using vaccine passports (no prizes for guessing who – Victoria). Vaccine passports are also still imposed in certain industries that refuse to rid themselves of discriminatory mandates (looking at you, NSW Department of Education).
There have been two revelations over the last couple of weeks that have brought to light further instances and issues of surveillance in Australia.
Last week, it was discovered by consumer group Choice that Kmart, Bunnings Warehouse, and the Good Guys all refer to facial recognition in their privacy policies and may have been using facial recognition technology in select stores. The organisation probed 25 retailers and found that these three were ‘capturing the biometric data of their customers’. To do so, they use video and images from store cameras to create a ‘faceprint’. As a Choice representative explained, this practice is akin to shops taking your fingerprints upon entry.
Kate Bower, Choice consumer data advocate, stated that the group found, ‘76 per cent of Australians aren’t aware that retailers are capturing their unique facial features in this way.’ This is despite Kmart, Bunnings, and the Good Guys correctly displaying small signs at the entrances of stores where this technology was being used. Some argue that this is not enough to adequately inform customers of what may feel like a breach of privacy.
The technology used to undertake this surveillance uses a database of around 3 billion images of people harvested from a range of websites across the internet. Keep in mind, this technology is not just capturing personal data from adults, but also children and infants.
Bunnings have since spoken on the matter, with Chief Operating Officer Simon McDowell telling Choice that they use the technology to ‘identify persons of interest who have previously been involved in incidents of concern in our stores’ and that ‘this technology is an important measure that helps us to maintain a safe and secure environment for our team and customers’.
But I think many would agree this is hardly a comforting response.
‘It’s for your safety’ has been used over and over, especially over the last two and a half years, to justify the removal of privacy and freedoms. It is not reasonable to justify taking away these essential values of humanity by merely saying ‘it’s to keep us all safe’.
We are seeing it happen all over again, this time perpetrated by corporations and big business.
When you enter a store to purchase goods, you should not have to be concerned that your privacy will be violated. That much is visible in the survey conducted by Choice of 1,000 consumers, 65 per cent of which expressed concern about the matter, some labelling it as ‘creepy and invasive’, others saying it was ‘unnecessary and dangerous’.
Choice is now referring the three to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner so an investigation can be carried out into potential breaches of the Privacy Act.
But corporations are not the only ones invading our privacy. In typical fashion, politicians are playing Big Brother too.
Prior to the revelations in the retail industry, news broke that a certain state government had been monitoring the everyday activities, including credit card transactions and social media sentiment, of its citizens. I probably don’t need to name the state for you to figure out it is Victoria.
The Andrews government tortured the people of Victoria over the last two and a half years. Their refusal to wind back restrictions and mandates has cost people their businesses, jobs, livelihoods, and their mental health.
Not satisfied, the Victorian government set up Insights Victoria back in August 2020 as part of the government’s Covid response, however, in the information obtained under freedom of information laws by the Sunday Herald Sun, a briefing note attached to the data agency said the system would evolve over time to inform decision-making post Covid.
The guide for the agency stated that the document was ‘designed to be the single truth source’ for the government. When the government refers to truth, it generally isn’t what it sounds like.
The data agency’s dashboard, updated on a daily basis, uses two sets of data – that which is publicly available, and that which is ‘commercial-in-confidence’ and ‘sensitive,’ the latter of which is not supposed to be released publicly nor used by third parties.
Access to all the data held by Insights Victoria was granted to several public servants, including Police Chief Commissioner Shane Patton, Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton, and Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp. More concerning was the access granted to Daniel Andrews’ political staff.
The government insists that ‘the data provided is not market sensitive and is anonymised’ and that all relevant security controls and protections were being used in line with the Privacy and Data Protection Act.
Dictator Dan, as we have come to know him, appears to aspire to be like Victoria’s own Xi Jinping. When the government starts monitoring your transactions and social media, it is a sign that they are on their way to creating a social credit system.
There is no justification for surveillance such as that being carried out by the government nor corporations. This is truly a wake-up call for all of us.
Privacy is a critical barrier between us and the elites of our society. It is essential to protecting us from those who seek to abuse their power and status for personal and political gain. We must protect it at all costs.
Because if Big Brother is watching, none of us are safe.
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