Of the great issues on our political agenda - the environment, conservation, peace, nuclear disarmament, poverty and debt - the protection of privacy hardly rates a mention, and yet it is one of the most important.
The protection of a citizens privacy from state surveillance is the difference between a government that is bearable, and one that is over-bearing; it is the difference between governments that prefer security to freedom.
As former Communist countries supposedly throw off the shackles of totalitarianism, Western nations are clamouring to number their citizens like cattle and to implement surveillance and monitoring methods that totalitarian governments only ever dreamed about.
Australia lies at the cutting edge of surveillance technology. We are ideally placed to serve as a test bed for big brother measures. We have the technical standards, a trusted legal system, the technological expertise and relatively uniform national banking, phone and transport systems.
Since the defeat of the 1986 Australia Card Bill, successive Australian governments have been contemplating defacto identity numbering schemes.
The key to these proposals is the quest by the state to establish a universal identifier (used by all departments) as opposed to a systems identifier (used by only one department).
A universal identifier provides "linkage between different systems... consolidating the system, so that information on individuals can be swapped and pooled." (Packard 1978)
Historically, two government bodies, the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) and the Health Insurance Commission (HIC) have been the driving forces behind attempts to introduce universal identity numbering schemes.
The ATO was the first department to attempt a defacto numbering system. The Taxation Laws Amendment (Tax File Numbers) Act 1988, allowed the ATO to issue a unique number - the Tax File Number to taxpayers, and people receiving social security payments.
The Health Insurance Commission devised the Australia Card and was to be the manager of the National Identity Numbering System (NINS). From the outset, the HIC foreshadowed that the Card would be unacceptable to citizens who valued their privacy and freedom. To this end, the HIC decided that in the face of public adversity the Card could be introduced by stealth.
In a leaked Outline Plan for the introduction of the Australia Card, the HIC cautioned: "It will be important to minimise any adverse public reaction to implementation of the system. One possibility would be to use a staged approach for implementation, whereby only less sensitive data are held on the system initially with the facility to input additional data at a later stage." (Walker G, 1987) The inevitability of gradualness became the order of the day.
In the first part of its "staged approach", the Health Insurance Commission Regulations Amendment (1991) enabled the HIC to do anything required to manage and improve the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, including carte blanche powers to devise and implement measures to prevent or detect fraud and overpayments.
In January 1996, a report by the Council of Australian Governments' Working Group on Health and Community Services proposed an enhanced Medicare smart card called the "universal patient record" (i.e.: a universal identifier). The smart card would record basic data each time a patient dealt with the health and/or welfare system.
The report recommended the establishment of a centralised "health and welfare bank": a greatly expanded version of the current federal Health Insurance Commission, which even 17 years ago, was the worlds largest online medical claims processing system.
Following on from research conducted in the United States in 1994, the Australian Government began investigating the possibility of Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBF) for welfare recipients, which would use a magnetic stripe card or smart card to access payments through EFTPOS. One card (perhaps the proposed Medicare Smart Card?) could be used to deliver all federal and state government welfare benefits.
Smart Cards - Big Brothers Little Helpers
Smart cards are plastic cards containing a computer microchip that stores thousands of pages of information. Smart cards could store digitised pictures, fingerprints, criminal records, medical records, banking details, immigration status and a host of other information.
Smart cards are either stored value disposable plastic cards, like phone cards, or reloadable cards with microchips. Electronic "cash" can be reloaded onto the cards from ATMs, EFTPOS, home telephones, or by tapping into subscriber television terminals.
Smart cards have been piloted widely in the capital cities Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne. In light of the Medicare Smart Card proposal, it is worth remembering that the Australia Card was to be a smart card.
The Big Eye
Technology has permitted an enormous leap forward in terms of surveillance. Even in George Orwell's 1984, citizens were safe from the omnipresent telescreen "eye" if they were in darkened areas of their homes. Today the police and military have infrared light cameras that can take high quality pictures in the dark.
Security cameras that can tilt pan and zoom peer from the tops of buildings and can observe people up to 3km away.
l In Adelaide, police at the State Administration Centre in Victoria Square control 13 cameras set up to monitor the Rundel Mall. Police watch images on five screens - four of which are divided into quarters to show vision simultaneously
l NSW City Rail introduced pencil thin cameras on trains in an attempt to reduce vandalism. More than 50 stations have closed circuit television cameras for staff to monitor activity on the platforms.
l At Darling Harbour, citizens are kept under surveillance by 25 cameras during daylight, and infrared cameras by night. These are just a few examples of the use of big eye spy cameras.
l Surveillance cameras also monitor our federal and state highways, banks, ATMs, supermarkets, government buildings, petrol stations, national parks, defence installations and airports.
We have now reached the stage where it is very difficult (if not impossible) for us even to begin to establish any kind of control over our privacy in terms of data collection and surveillance.
Australia Embraces Surveillance
Australian Parliamentary Paper 173/1986, "Towards A Cashless Society" detailed how compulsory use of EFTPOS could substitute for many of the proposed uses of the Australia Card and showed how EFTPOS could be used to obtain detailed surveillance data.
During the past ten years, Australians have embraced surveill-ance technology. ATM and EFTPOS use in this country is among the highest in the world (Greenwood, R., 1994).
The Payments Systems Council, an umbrella body for the banking industry, recently published figures which show that Australians have more access to EFTPOS facilities than most Western nations, including the United States, Germany and Japan (Wainwright, R., 1995).
Figures from the Australian Bankers' Association show that Australians conduct 40 per cent of all retail purchases on plastic and that the use of EFTPOS leapt 40 per cent in 1994.
Australian governments have justified the formation of databases for the most unlikely purposes. The former Labor Government extolled the virtues of forming a national database to keep track of people who had been immunised (and convers-ely, identify those who had not).
We all remember the Deakin Centre saga, where a "telephone exchange" was found to be masquerading as a National Computer Centre - the Deakin Centre. In the white-wash that followed Wilson Tuckey, the then Shadow Minister for Health and the Identity Card, confirmed that the Centre housed computer equip-ment for Social Security, Taxation, Telecom, Aviation and Defence.
At the time, the Hawke govern-ment maintained that although comp-uters were housed together there was no interlinking of databases. Today the government openly admits comp-uter linking of various departments.
In February 1994, 142 federal, state and territorial Australian govern-ment departments, were linked to a new interactive computer network known as Min-Net.
"All government departments in Australia - and eventually in the pacific and throughout the world - will be... linked in a new interactive network min-net." (Juddery, B., 1994)
Lean Times for Privacy
In 1992, the Attorney General's department unveiled the Law Enforcement Access Network (LEAN). LEAN was ostensibly established as a fraud control facility, with a central computer database acting as a "lending library".
LEAN enables government agencies with law enforcement and protection of public revenue respons-ibilities, access to Australia-wide corporate and land data. It is now believed that LEAN has greatly expanded its capacities to include far more data than its original charter specified.
A 1992 Federal Government fact sheet written by the LEAN Project Team states: "[T]he establishment and operation of the LEAN facility is not contrary to the Privacy Act 1988 because exemptions to the Inform-ation Privacy Principles apply." LEAN was established via regulation, rather than legislation and is exempt to the 1988 Privacy Act and Schedules because it is used for law enforce-ment purposes.
The agencies believed to have access to LEAN are: Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence, Australian Customs Service, Attor-ney General's Department, Austral-ian Federal Police, Australian Taxation Office, Department of Education, Employment & Training, Department of Defence, Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, National Crime Authority, State and Territory Governments, Department of Administrative Services, Health Insurance Commission, state police forces, state Tax Offices and the Department of Social Security. AUST-RAC (formerly the Cash Transactions Reports Agency) and the Department of Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs are also believed to have access to LEAN.
It was Adolf Hitler who said: "What good fortune for the Govern-ment that people do not think." Our freedom tomorrow depends upon our vigilant thoughts today. We must consider the potential for the surrep-titious elements of surveillance techn-ology and identity numbering should they fall into the wrong hands.
It is our obligation as citizens of a "democracy" to maintain a wariness against governments that would use information as power. It is our duty as "free citizens" to question the motives and intent of governments and corporations that use monitoring, surveillance and numbering to imply that law abiding people are guilty until proven innocent.
Anonymous, "Security is all in vain", The Courier Mail, 3 February, 1994, p.1
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Clarke, R., "Tax File Number a defacto I.D. Card", The Australian
Coffey, M., "Privacy concern tempers health 'smart card' plan", The Weekend Australian, 3-4 January, 1996, p.5
Commonwealth Government Parliam-entary Standing Committee on Public Works, "Telephone Exchange Building, Deakin, ACT."
Cribb, J., "Secure passport jumps airport queue", The Australian, 25 July, 1995
Delvecchio, J., "Big Brother's eyes see all", Sydney Morning Herald, 8 July, 1994
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Greenwood, R., "Cash, who needs it?", The Age, 13 March, 1995
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Susan Bryce is an investigative journalist and researcher whose interests include issues which affect individual freedom, environmental health, surveillance technology and global politics. She can be contacted c/- Mapleton Post Office, QLD 4560.