Privacy has had a bad year.
It kicked off when Edward Snowden – breaking all sorts of security protocols – pocketed a bundle of classified documents which showed that Barack Obama’s National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on pretty much all of us. All that and only 1 per cent of the documents have reportedly been released so far.
Australia was caught doing some spying of its own on the Indonesian government, triggering a costly diplomatic furore.
Social media networks continued to get us to sign away our ownership rights to the images and videos we post, transforming our information into profit. Drones watched us from the skies in increasing numbers and more and more CCTV cameras were switched on – on streets, in cars, on trains, outside bars, at work and everywhere in between.
Even the Xbox One was declared a potential surveillance device by some privacy advocates, who were worried that its night-vision camera, voice recorder, heart-rate monitor and facial recognition software could be tapped by the NSA.
In this general mood of suspicion, Bitcoin – a digital currency that masks your purchasing history – has boomed. Since this time last year, the value of a single “coin” (which is actually just computer code) has increased by over 5000 per cent, driven by privacy nerds, black market racketeers and foreign investors.
But it’s not all bad news, says Bill Rowlings, CEO of Civil Liberties Australia. While each tale of intrusion, spookier than the last, has been a chilling reminder of our insecurity, it has also been an antidote for our ignorance.
“At the end of 2013, privacy is disastrously down, but awareness of the dangers is dramatically up,” he told The New Daily.
But some privacy threats are even more obscure, as are the legal loopholes that make them possible.
The most obvious and Orwellian threat we face is government surveillance, according to Melbourne-based barrister Peter Clarke, a board member of the Australian Privacy Foundation who has worked in the area of privacy law for 25 years.
“The big issue for Australia is that the government has agreed to provide data to the NSA. It’s a breach of the trust that the Australian people expect of their government,” he says.
Clarke refers to the Snowden leaks, which reveal that vast amounts of information is being collected on Australian citizens by the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) and then siphoned off to the US.
This poses the risk of innocent Australians being suspected of terrorism, since the algorithms used to trawl through our data look for key words and phrases. Next time you buy a discount vehicle to thrash in the paddock, best not don’t tell anyone you ‘bought an old bomb’.
Other threats to our privacy are posed by the business sector, which hungrily collects our credit cards, postal addresses, phone numbers and more.
This information is often used to send us targeted advertising. For example, Gmail scans emails in order to personalise its marketing. This is why you start seeing real estate ads everywhere after you tell your housemates that you’re thinking about moving out. (Solution: install an ad-blocker.)
This sounds scary. But having a computer scour your emails for words like “new house”, “watch” or “dress” is nothing compared with having Google forward your entire list of contacts to the NSA so it can figure out if you’ve been emailing terrorists – which is exactly what happens.
“The more government intrudes the more it opens up a path behind it for the corporate sector to intrude without being criticised,” warns Rowlings.
Australia’s big four banks, telephone companies like Telstra and Optus, hospitals, credit reporting agencies and many others (except the media industry) are heavily regulated by a swathe of federal legislation, most importantly by the Privacy Act.
These regulations go a long way to ensuring that our most important data – such as our telephone, medical and financial records – is not misused.
But it’s not just foreign mega-companies like Google and Facebook that we need to worry about. We also need to be mindful of the little guys. Small businesses that have an annual turnover of less than $3 million are exempt from the Privacy Act.
“People’s personal information is kept by all sorts of businesses, many of them small businesses, who can just as easily abuse privacy as any other business,” says Clarke. “What about the guys on the street corner who collate data like everyone else and do with it as they see fit?”
Despite what you may think, we also have no legal right to privacy – or at least no right to sue for privacy infringement.
Civil Liberties Australia says this needs to be remedied in order to allow us to protect ourselves in the court system, rather than waiting for the government to do it for us.
“We support the statutory right to privacy. We need new rules to monitor government spookdom to ensure it stays within bounds,” says Rowlings.
The Gillard government attempted to create a legal right to privacy earlier this year. But it failed in the face of sustained attacks from the media industry, which was widely opposed because it might have hindered journalism.
It is currently possible to sue for breach of confidence, but Clarke explains that this old area of law is an awkward fit for privacy.
“Breach of confidence actions are a patch-up,” says Clarke. “It’s a square peg in a round hole.”
Privacy: Your cut-out-and-keep guide
It’s easy to feel disempowered when you think about the might of the organisations which control our privacy – governments, spy agencies, multinational technology companies. But as citizens, there is a lot we can do to control our privacy. Here’s a list of actions which will help your information remain yours.
• Browse through the terms and conditions whenever you sign up to a new website, and look for the paragraphs that are in all capitals. That’s where they hide the juicy stuff, because caps are harder to read.
• If you are worried about the security of your emails, look around for a free encrypted account. Keep in mind that anything based in the US, Canada, UK, Australia or New Zealand could be court-ordered to give up your details.
• Sign out of your social networks while browsing the web. This can reduce the amount of information these sites glean from you.
• Don’t ever allow an application access to your social networking site.
• If you are worried about your online privacy, do some research on “Tor”. It’s anonymity software designed to hide your identity and your location when you browse the internet.
• If you have a privacy complaint, contact the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.
Jackson Stiles is a Melbourne-based freelance writer. He is also a Bitcoin investor.