The price of privacy

By Roj Amedi
cctv pigeons privacy

The right to privacy, as enshrined in Article 12 of the Declaration of Human Rights, is often forgotten. We live in a world where surveillance is normalised, where personal data is often unknowingly taken from us in exchange for accessing services, and where our Medicare details can be purchased on the darknet. Even if the Government wanted to protect us from these constant invasions of our privacy – and most evidence suggests that it doesn’t, as seen in the recent efforts to create backdoor access to our encrypted data on social media platforms – the tools at their disposal are too slow to keep up with the rapid pace of technological advancement.

“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

(Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12)

Yet the burden of these privacy breaches are not shared equally among members of our society. Privacy has always been a commodity particularly inaccessible to marginalised people, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and those experiencing poverty (and especially for those who fall into both intersections). The more marginalised you are in society, the more systems and policies that are put in place to protect civil liberties – including privacy – need not apply. Institutions and successive governments have shown no desire to protect the privacy of those who do not have the means to access it themselves.

Government policy increasingly defines the limits of the right to privacy, excluding certain groups from its protection. Someone experiencing homelessness, for example, is unable to ensure their own privacy and security, often because of a mixture of trauma, domestic violence, housing shortages, income inequality and economic shortfalls. These circumstances are an artificial consequence of longstanding tax policies that reward investors who hoard property without releasing them onto the rental market, and the continuing reduction of accessible, safe and stable public housing.

In these circumstances, as we have seen in the City of Melbourne and the City of Sydney, people who cannot sustain their own individual privacy are confronted with punitive measures. A lack of access to various privileges is seen as an unsightly indictment of society, and is therefore punished by the confiscation of their personal property, amongst other things.

These punitive measures extend to people who access welfare, particularly when those same people enact their democratic right to interrogate the policies of the day. In February 2017, Andie Fox published an online piece questioning the methods undertaken by the “robo-debt” debt collectors. In an unprecedented move, the Department of Human Services released her private information to Fairfax, alleging that it was simply trying to correct misinformation. A department that’s supposed to provide a safety net to its citizens, instead actively and publicly attacked Fox by releasing her private data, all in an effort to legitimise a debt collecting campaign that was mired in controversy and incompetence.

The antagonistic nature of both the “robo-debt” campaign and this subsequent aggressive public relations campaign highlights that the Government believes that the marginalised are undeserving not only of their right to privacy, but also of a standard of respect afforded to more privileged citizens.

The cashless welfare card program introduced in predominantly Aboriginal communities, and the drug testing of welfare recipients are both part of a Government effort to strip people of their liberties, reinforcing that the public has the right to scrutinise every individual decision of marginalised people. While those benefitting from tax exemptions, breaks and loopholes can do so in secrecy, only exposed by extensive investigation, people receiving welfare are punished and have their every action open to criticism. Those with the financial means are allowed to engage in illicit consumption with next to no repercussions, whilst others who are unable to ensure their own structural security undergo repetitive punitive measures.

Yet it’s not only governments that feel entitled to encroach upon someone’s privacy for political gain. It’s the media as well, creating examples of people, stripping them of their multiplicity and privacy, and vilifying them. In 2016, Duncan Storrar asked a question on Q&A about policies that prioritised the wealthy over supporting those, like him, who are working class and continue to struggle financially. He was immediately pushed into the media spotlight as both a hero and villain, stripped of his complexity and humanity. He was torn down for not only having a 15-year-old criminal record but also for paying no net tax, as though that undermined his right to criticise his representatives. These allegations were used to justify his dehumanisation in mainstream media, overlooking his various experiences of trauma and disability. Storrar’s marginalisation and poverty was seen as a legitimate reason to strip him of his privacy in the search for incriminating evidence that would, allegedly, undermine his right to interrogate the policies of the day.

Time and time again we see that societies’ systems have been set to guarantee security and privacy only for those who meet a threshold of economic and structural privilege. Anyone that falls below these standards are beholden to a constant barrage of scrutiny, their every move a possible symbol of their individual failings, and a repetitive negligence to broader structural issues impeding on someone’s freedoms.