Tuesday, October 10, 2006

THE image of spooks from government, quasi-government and all sorts of private agencies tickling the search engines in a twist on George Orwell's vision in Nineteen-Eighty-Four (Classie Corner, September 23) has prompted an interesting analysis.
My post told how an insurance company had opened an official investigation into the affairs of a northern New South Wales man after finding his name on this site in a column from the Classie Corner archives.
BayJournal.com.au publisher Lee Shipley, a veteran of the Australian IT industry, boils down the issues to trust and the responsibilities of governments to protect the privacy of individuals.

THE search problem. Remember that every commercial aircraft design is based on a military project. What you see in Google today is declassified top-secret military or espionage software that was being used a decade or more ago.

Try the word "echelon" in the search engines and see what you get -- lots of conspiracy theory but it doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

THE Wikipedia entry gives a level-headed assessment. The hardware and software for putting together the electronic transmission of all kinds into a surveillance whole is possible but the incompetence of most spy organisations is breathtaking.
How exactly did, with all the sophisticated gear that they had, did the twin towers occur? Incompetence at every level.
1984 is technically feasible but not practical: Our spies always look for the wrong things in the wrong places.
The US counter intelligence people were looking for Reds not Jihadists. Churchill was more worried about the Reds than Hitler between the two World Wars.
The stance should never be "I have not done anything wrong and so have nothing to fear." Instead we should be asking what right do others, particularly corporations or governments, have to pry and then accuse. How can you possibly know what may or may not be considered wrong at any one time?
We have principles, now being flouted by Government, about retrospective laws. We have privacy legislation that is regularly being ignored by companies.
"Man, proud man, drest in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what he's most assur d..."

FROM this we need protection in the same way as we need protection from burglars, rapists or loonies carrying AK47s.
Granted the potential of much of the software available now for surveillance we have much to fear from those driven by greed. But the answer is not in banning such software but in disciplining those who would us it against us.
Insurance companies need to be halted by statutes of limitation, police prevented from having the automatic right to listen to all conversations without warrants, tax information not given out to private companies, spammers threatened with prosecution and ... You see what I mean.

THE key resource that has enabled us to build our civilisation has not been, as many think, capital.
It is trust. Insurance companies, for example, only exist because enough people trust them to pay out if something goes wrong.
Lloyds famed acceptance of its liabilities for the loss of a vessel after only a verbal agreement had an enormous impact in creating the insurance market in the UK.
Every day we need trust and take account of its value. A camera, for example, can command a better price if it carries an Australian warranty.
We cross bridges, fly in aeroplanes and buy kilos of peanuts by trust. That is civilisation --
where trust is high, where people live without fear, where we work together in free association we thrive.
Trust, not God, enables modern large-scale government to stay in power.
Despite protestations to the contrary, we trust our politicians to do the right thing.
My observation during the last state election in Queensland is that the majority of voters in my own electorate elected the candidate they believed they could most trust.

WHAT the pollies have to decide is how to maintain that trust. Not just in themselves but in the society as a whole.
Otherwise civil disobedience will rise above the normal dull roar of criminal activity and see wide spread break down in order.
If you rent a house, an important clause in the contract is that you will have "quiet enjoyment". This means that you will not be subject to spot checks without notice or be watched.
Humans just do not thrive otherwise so we build it into basic principles and laws of our country. But we have not yet learned how to contain the new technologies.
Steps have been made in the right direction. The privacy legislation enacted a few years ago were a good attempt.
The anti-spam legislation and faltering attempts to rein in the use of mailing lists are slowly starting to bite. And this just goes to remind us how difficult and fragile this trust may be.

FOOTNOTE: The full Shakespearean quotation is :"Man, proud man, drest in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what he's most assur d, glassy essence, like an angry ape, plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven, as make the angels weep." Measure for Measure, Act 2, Scene 2.
NEXT: Back to the marvellous community of classified advertising.

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