We all have habits we’d prefer no one else was privy too. I’d prefer it if nobody was watching when I turn my phone off and rehearse difficult conversations with an imaginary person on the other end of the line, or the occasional doona dance party I substitute for going to a real party with real dancing and real people.
And there are more serious things that I don’t want governments to know about – my political views on things I do not choose to share publicly, who my friends are or my colleagues. I may not want them to know about my relationships with people who perhaps the government does not like (or vice versa, they may prefer their relationships with me not be known – my political predilections are hardly private) or I might not want them to know the ins and outs of work or projects I am involved in to challenge the government.
And maybe the government doesn’t care to know those things either.
But, then again, maybe it does.
It has, after all, passed some of the most draconian restrictions on the free press we’ve ever seen in our country, allowing journalists to be imprisoned for up to ten years for reporting on ASIO special operations; it goes to extraordinary, expensive and undemocratic lengths to hide its treatment of vulnerable refugees; and it passed unprecedented laws to allow for the collection of metadata in 2015.
In a creepy twist of serendipity, this week those mass surveillance laws came into action back home as I have been travelling around Germany learning about the Stasi Regime that spied on its citizens, turned its citizens into informants and controlled its population through insidious, pervasive (and much more labor intensive!) surveillance.
About five or so years ago I became aware of the capacity of governments to try and control the information we receive as citizens when the Labor Party tried to implement the controversial mandatory internet filter – basically an official blacklist of websites that ISPs are then required to ban. One morning I caught the train to a designated street corner and joined a tiny gathering of about six other people in black hoodies awkwardly waving placards at oncoming traffic and talking about how to build momentum around this insidious issue. Overwhelmingly I remember feeling like no one really cared that their government wanted to control what they could read, or watch or know – their belief in a benign government was so strong.
I started to understand more about the risks of government’s controlling access to information, and collecting information on its citizens, when I began working for the Greens two years later. This time, it was the Liberal Party who introduced legislation to collect immense quantities of data on our private lives – where we go, who we speak to, the websites we visit and the information we read.
It all started to sound terrifyingly and absurdly familiar this week as I walked through the old GDR Ministry for State Security headquarters, now Stasi Museum, and stepped through rooms filled with stories of men and women who were monitored by the government, who ratted on their neighbours and their colleagues sometimes under extreme duress and sometimes under the delusion that the government knew best.
The Stasi collected information on everything. Where you went, who you talked to, what holidays you took, who you visited for work, or for fun, what letters you received, what they said, who you socialised with and what you said about the government. Everything. They used this to torment their citizens and to instil a deep and pervasive fear. I read about the Stasi using information, and inventing it, to humiliate people by sending them pornography in the mail, terrorise them by moving objects in their homes and ultimately cost people their jobs, family, liberty and sometimes lives if found guilty of crime.
The National Commissioner for Stasi Records now has one hundred and eleven kilometers of documents on its people.
One hundred and eleven kilometers.
The Stasis didn’t have the internet, mobile phones that plug you in and geomap your whereabouts. They had cameras hidden in belt buckles and manually installed into wall cavities, but they did not have anywhere near the capacity that our governments have to track our every move and yet they controlled an entire population.
We have no reason to believe that our government is benign. This very recent history, held in buildings that I walked through this week, tells us something about the extraordinary actions governments will take to consolidate power.
And, our own government’s willingness to pass over 60 pieces of legislation to combat terrorism and curtail freedoms; and their deliberate, prolonged regime of torment, torture and secrecy shrouding the indefinite detention of refugees tells us something about what our government is prepared to do to human beings.
So, as the government’s invasive (but kind of crap, apparently) regime of surveillance kicks into action; consider taking steps to protect your privacy. The government has no place in your personal life, knowing about your conversations, your whereabouts or who you associate with: http://greens.org.au/digital-rights