The Information Infrastructure is a Super Eye-Way

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Version of 14 August 1996

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1996

This paper was published in Privacy Law & Policy Reporter 3, 5 (August 1996)

This document is at

Davies, Simon 'Monitor: Extinguishing Privacy on the Information Superhighway' Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 1996, 262 pp., RRP $16.95

I reviewed Simon Davies' 'Monitor' in a very pleasant Gippsland restaurant called 'Reflections'. Simon would have me believe that the anonymity I enjoyed during that country trip will soon be shattered.

The transaction trail generated by my credit, debit and stored-value cards will tell a story that is inalienably mine. My airline tickets and vehicle tolls will bear silent yet incontrovertible witness to my movements. My continual interactions with the Global Positioning System will provide the surveillance apparatus with a real-time trace of my current whereabouts.

Simon's thesis is essentially an amplification of the argument that we are frogs (or perhaps yabbies), our senses dulled by the gentle warming of the water in the cooking pot, oblivious to the death that confronts our free selves. The water is the technology that we are increasingly complacent about, and have even "learned to love".

"We are no longer playing with gadgets or devices. We are dealing instead with a technological canopy ... The apocalyptic view of the future creates scant concern for most young people ... It's no longer fashionable among intelligent folk to admit to being 'scared' or even 'concerned' about computers. Smart people embrace technology ... People of all ages feel no fear of technology. All around, there is an air of acceptance. Slowly, we are being fused with the technology. And as we become fused with the technology, human identity becomes less distinct ... We are witnessing a process of mass pacification ... There is no Big Brother enforcing compliance with this New Order. People will happily surrender their most intimate data ... Big Brother entailed conflict, but ours is becoming a society based on Harmony Ideology" (pp. 20, 22, 31, 3, 31, 3).

Simon is based in London these days. Despite this, his research on local developments has been sound, and his facts about developments in Australian government databases are very well-informed, and (with occasional blemishes) accurate, his "snapshot of surveillance in Australia" (pp. 28-29) chillingly so.

He tells of the conservative British medical fraternity's break with the Tory Government on the matter of the proposed national health database (pp. 54-64). I can't vouch for the accuracy of his history, but the plot development is reminiscent of the successful campaign Simon waged when he led the nation to its wholesale rejection of the Australia Card in September 1987. (The Letters Editor of 'The Australian' said on 15 September 1987 that "There has never been a debate like it on the letters page; there has never been such a cry of oppositon from the nation over one topic", with 526 letters received in 13 days, 475 of them against the scheme).

Books inevitably affect readers differently. The passage that stopped me most abruptly (pp.44-52) argues that the considerable attention paid to privacy concerns during the establishment of Australia's Health Communications Network (HCN) was a ruse. If that's the case, then I was the guilty party; because I was the tame privacy advocate who aided and abetted the process. My justifications have been that they seemed to be genuinely new-age privacy-sensitive people; and that the reason they haven't called me lately is that the HCN is stalling badly. Has my inherent optimism trapped me into naiveté? When he says that "Slick public relations consultants and wordsmiths are employed to 'neutralise' the language of privacy invasion ... The bleak Orwellian image of computers has been softened and redesigned in gentle pastels" (pp. 27, 31), can he really be talking about me??

Simon's thesis is that not only are would-be-vigilant privacy advocates being lulled into false senses of security, but so is everyone else. When you filled in that anodyne census form a few weeks ago, and accepted the blandishments about privacy protection, were you overlooking the 'virtually central' personal data register that is in an advanced state of construction? The Netherlands abandoned its census because its citizens had become highly cynical, and the credibility of the data collected was approaching vanishing point. Its neighbour, Denmark, has also abandoned its census, but for a more sinister reason: the central database is so comprehensive that the census has become redundant.

Under threat, I sought solace in the fact that Simon is no technology buff, and has made mistakes in his descriptions of technology. Surely they must undermine his argument. An analysis left me discomfited: the hyperbole that is inevitable in his briskly-written, journalistic style emerges not during his explanation of the underlying technologies, but in his interpretations of what they mean for society. Indeed, his critique of the popular 'electronic frontier' and 'superhighway' notions (in particular at pp. 35-41) is considerably more incisive than that in Cliff Stoll's celebrated, counter-cultural treatise ('Silicon Snake-Oil') of 12 months earlier.

Other readers will find that it is other parts of the book that strike chords with them. For some it might be the disturbing yet legally accurate 'All-New Hippocratic Oath' (p. 57). For others, it might be the latest version of the Mason / Zionist / Multi-National Corporation [choose any one or more] conspiracy to rule the world (pp. 70-72). Others will have already felt the chill from the discussions of 'neural prosthetics', eugenics, DNA testing and personal telephone numbers in the first chapter, and had their fears confirmed by the descriptions of calling number display (CND) as the means of destroying our remaining telephone privacy (pp. 177-196); of closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance (pp.197-231), rampant in Great Britain, and in train in Australia; or of current-generation biometric identification and near-future human ID implants (pp. 75-95).

These are skilfully written, but necessarily fairly shallow analyses. Rather more care is invested in the ID card schemes and proposals that are breaking out in epidemic proportions. The book continually stresses the central role of human identification. This is because the other two of the three pre-conditions for a national identification scheme have already been satisfied: there already exist a rich set of collections of data about people, and a telecommunications network that can interconnect those databases.

Simon identifies projects in many nations that have far poorer claims to a tradition of freedom than does our own, but also several in cultures more like Australia's (pp. 97-133). Along the way, he provides one of the most cogent critiques available of the incapacity of ID cards and their associated integrated databanks to deliver on the promises made on their behalf (pp.106-118).

"But didn't we win that battle in 1987, and address those problems with the Privacy Act in 1988?", we ask. No, argues Simon, in a lengthy analysis (pp. 135-160): this created protections for data rather than for people; the protection regime is flawed and incomplete; and the Privacy Commissioner is an intentionally toothless placebo. " ... Data protection of today [will] be looked back on as a rather quaint, failed attempt to cope with an overpowering technological tide" (p.138).

My own perspective is less pessimistic than Simon's. I don't consider that he has paid sufficient attention to the existence of technologies that can be harnessed to protect privacy. My work with smart cards has convinced me that they provide a basis for genuinely privacy-protective system design; and I further believe that pressure can be brought to bear on developers to ensure that their schemes take advantage of that potential.

He's also overlooked the already-commencing decline of the power of nation-states; the healthy pluralism within our society and the manifold hurdles that presents to the high priests of efficient social engineering; and the ability of the Australian public to be mobilised against, or to simply ignore, the most obnoxious schemes.

In addition to his techno-dystopian scenario, there are others that need to be considered, not least of them the breakdown of regional authorities and emergence of modern forms of tribalism described in the 'cyberpunk' sci-fi genre. Yes, they're frightening too, but differently frightening.

After many years of effort in this area, I have well-formed views about the progress we've been making in holding back the threat of privacy-invasive technologies, and forcing adaptation of those technologies into more human-friendly configurations. But the power of Simon's rhetoric in his latest book has shaken my confidence.

Read this book and ask yourself whether Simon's just an aging, out-dated rad who uses archaic clichés like 'resistance'; or whether something stirs within you.

If Simon's right, your bequest to your children is a technological infrastructure, and a social demeanour, which together spell 'submission'.

Roger Clarke is a veteran privacy advocate, and an information technology consultant in, among other things, corporate strategy and public policy aspects of information privacy.


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Created: 14 August 1996

Last Amended: 9 September 1996

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