META[DATA] MATTERS

You know when you’re seeking asylum in Russia, something is up…

This was originally published in the 3rd issue of the UTS Student magazine, Vertigo.

For those who don’t read the news, or do and simply read the entertainment parts, a major ongoing new item, possibly one of the most important in your lifetime (aside from that of climate change), are the global surveillance disclosures. The NSA leaks of 2013 (whose scope was later increased from the USA to the entire world) are an ongoing series of leaks from a former NSA IT contractor that detail a global system of surveillance larger than any Hollywood movie trope could’ve imagined. It details how a coalition of Western nations, led by the USA, have been building a global surveillance network worthy of Orwell’s dystopia to monitor, track, influence and infiltrate. And this was revealed responsibly by Edward Snowden, 31 and married, earning at his career high $200,000 USD, now a fugitive living in Russia (and you know when you’re seeking asylum in Russia, something is up). Little more than a year later, and his acts of good have him labelled by our Foreign Minister Julie Bishop as a traitor and accused of “unprecedented” treachery.

And while you may think apathetically about this issue as a whole, here’s why you should care. I watched a documentary about Snowden called Citizen4 wherein he explains succinctly and perfectly why this matters (also check out John Oliver’s recent Last Week Tonight, where he phrases it in phallic language). These surveillance programs are of threat to our fundamental liberties. And you might say, “but I have nothing to hide other than my terrible snapchats and Tinder conversations”. And who cares if they saw, saved and analysed all my Instagram photos from when I was on holiday. Or they knew yesterday I had coffee with my political activist friend. Or that my opal card transaction history which is personally linked to me as part of a mandatory government policy (whose information is available without a warrant and in future will become the only way to use public transport) showed I got off at 11.49am in a location not too distant from the place that my activist greenie friend was geolocated (based on which cellphone tower she was connected to and her Maps services on her iPhone). What does it matter they have constructed an entire profile of our movements, who we are talking to and when, in realtime, with a nice Apple Watch app to go with? Who needs privacy when we have nothing to hide, right?

Not only can they track you as they see fit now, but as a consequence of them storing all of your communications, they can do it retroactively in the future, 1, 2, even 10 years from now. And you’ll be sure they’ll know you well enough by then. To their credit, unlike more friendly actors like environmentalists, they have a nice catchy slogan to explain themselves: “Your data is our data, your equipment is our equipment — anytime, any place, by any legal means”. Kind of creepy, right?


“Your data is our data, your equipment is our equipment — anytime, any place, by any legal means” (NSA, 2015)

This is no longer the realm of movie tropes and tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists (which by the way, were totally right). This is reality. And I digress, today it is far from being scary. We are bickering about how insignificant it is, the metadata legislation being passed and having mandatory registration on Opal cards. We are giving corporations all our information, photos, locations, relations, on social media without a care in the world for how they are using it. But this was not the way of life 10 years ago. Using the word “privacy” in conversation was not a poor attempt at poking fun of activist types, it was a right, it was and still is a fundamental liberty. Today, we are okay, but little by little, without us realizing, our fundamental liberties are being eroded under the guise of protecting the general public from terrorists (a technological bandaid over a sociocultural problem), and soon, without us knowing we will live in a world where the government can do a 180, turn back on the laws and regulations protecting us now, and we will have no meaningful means of opposing it. And that, is scary.

I leave this as an exercise to the reader: take a moment to seriously, mindfully, sit and contemplate — where are we going with technology, with smartphones, with social media, with technology and the Internet. How are we contributing and forming these new social constructs? Lastly, just ponder why you didn’t hear more about these surveillance scandals in the media and why there wasn’t more talk about it.

We are extremely fortunate in Australia to be living as we do today, and just as generations previous have protected and ensured this way of life for us, of which free speech, privacy and no fear of oppression are key, it is our moral imperative to ensure it for future generations.

So next time you’re in conversation with friends, get talking about this global surveillance system. You may not think this has any significance, but communicating leads to change. The more we talk, the better. The more who know, the better. And the closer we get to change.

Liam Edwards-Playne.
@liamzebedee — liamz.co