View without photos
View with photos

"Thought police" are here
by Bruce McCabe    AustralianIT
Entered into the database on Tuesday, October 04th, 2005 @ 15:37:40 MST


Untitled Document

The bracelet. Last week I must have discussed, presented or written about 50 technologies, but I couldn't get that one out of my head.

Always in the background, always nagging, bothering me, worrying me. Just like it would if I was wearing it.

Australia just became a place where a citizen can be detained for two weeks without charge, and where a person convicted of no crime at all can be forced to wear an ankle bracelet that continuously broadcasts their movements to an unknown watcher for up to a year.

The events on September 27, 2005, when Australia's state governments accepted new anti-terrorism laws proposed by the Federal government, made Australia a different place just as surely as events on September 11 2001 and October 12 2002, only this time we managed it all by ourselves.

"Braceleting" someone can be done on the basis that, on the balance of probabilities, this will help prevent a terrorist attack. But the subjective and ill-defined nature of the term "terrorist attack" is a huge problem. Of course, they mean planning mass murder, and acts of vandalism to public infrastructure will be included too.

But what about planning an aggressive protest, or preparing a fiery speech attacking the government? Can we be sure a definite line will be drawn there? Will someone decide a newspaper column criticising the government has crossed that line and represents an incitement to terror? Braceleting will be a punishment, make no mistake.

The physical presence of the device might be an inconvenience, but the psychological impact will be awful. Every minute of every hour of every day a faceless someone will be looking over the wearer's shoulder.

Orwellian comparisons are not out of place. Big Brother really will be watching at all times, everywhere.

There will be stigma and shame, and the constant care to keep the ankle covered in public places.

This is a punishment that will be inflicted on people that have committed no crime, and on people that will have no right to defend themselves against their accusers.

Even mass murderers such as Martin Bryant had the right to a trial, a defence, and to have the public scrutinise the process.

Australians can, for the first time, be punished because somebody else thinks they are thinking about crime.

The thought police are here.

Surely, I hear you cry, these people have good intentions and are not writing laws for that. Maybe, but the people writing the law will not be the ones applying it. Governments, police forces and intelligence services are made up of real people of all shapes and sizes. Some are good at what they do, some not so good, some are smart, and some not so smart. They make mistakes.

A few are corruptible. Politicians come along from time to time that are inclined to get confused between a threat to their politics and a threat to the nation. As I write this there is no legislation yet, so we don't know what the final judicial and public accountability mechanisms will look like, but they will need to be a hell of a lot better than the ones in place now. On September 15, the US activist Scott Parkin was deported from Australia and the government has steadfastly refused to provide details of why. Was this man a genuine threat to the nation or was he just a political inconvenience?

Under current law neither we, nor his lawyer, nor his family, have the right to know. Will the first woman that is braceleted have a right to know? Will her family?

The social costs are great indeed and, given that none of these laws would have prevented the London bombings, Bali or the other attacks that inspired them, they don't stack up at all well against the anticipated benefits. At the same time, our public service has countless opportunities to apply technology to directly improve the lives of Australians, and could do with all the political leadership it can get.

As if to underscore that need, only two weeks ago the Productivity Commission released a report, Impacts of Advances in Medical Technology, which contained damning statements about Australia's progress in applying ICT in healthcare.

It is a tragedy that the only technologies our Prime Minister has been inspired to back in recent times have been the Australia Card - and this bracelet.