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Privacy the loser as “spy toys” proliferate

Opinion

The English poet WH Auden wrote, “Private faces in public places are wiser and nicer than public faces in private places.” It’s an awkward image – those public faces in private places – but South Australians better get used to it, writes Malcolm King.

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While the Greens and independents knocked some of the sharp edges off the recent Summary Offences (Biometric Identification) Amendment Bill, the new amendments will still give police exceptional powers.

For example, where an officer has “reasonable cause to suspect” a person has committed or is about to commit a crime or may help with an investigation, and that person refuses to give their personal details, they can be compelled to have their fingerprints scanned and/or photo taken in public.

The definition of “reasonable cause” is broad. Two Muslim guys sitting in a car listening to rap music while waiting to go to Friday prayers might constitute reasonable cause. You can drive a truck through reasonable cause and still not hit the sides.

Australian attorneys-general and police ministers met in Canberra in May last year and agreed on a co-ordinated plan to share surveillance intelligence. This SA legislation supports the push by the federal Attorney-General and the states to create an intelligence-sharing network.

Here’s why South Australians should take note:

One could be forgiven for thinking that terrorist activities and crime in SA are going through the roof. Yet crime against people and property in the state has been dropping for 10 years.

The SAPOL Annual Report 2014-2015 states that from 2005-06 to 2014-15, there was a drop of 29.7 per cent, or 45,180 offences (152,370 to 107,190), against persons and property. Any police force in the world would be proud of that.

So why the need for mobile fingerprint technology, on-the-spot mug-shots or drones fitted with high-resolution cameras?

For 15 years, the media’s 24-7 “war on terror” has created a fearful public that would trade its privacy rights for the illusion of protection provided by technology. A recent UniSA survey of 600 people, as reported by InDaily, supports this claim.

You may say that in the “war on terror”, we must sacrifice our identity and privacy to unearth those who would do us harm. But the police and security forces are already well provisioned to detect terror threats and to act on them swiftly and with force.

In the past seven years, there have been five credible terrorist threats in Australia, most in New South Wales. The perpetrators were apprehended, trialled and jailed. The most significant were a planned attack by extremists on the Holsworthy Barracks in NSW in 2009 and the Sydney terrorism plot in 2005.

But if you hit the media-consuming public hard enough and often enough, it’s going to have an effect. That effect is fear.

The rise of biometrics is the public face of the state poking its way in to our most private domain – our bodies.

Last year, East Para Primary School adopted fingerprint-scanning software to track attendance. But after a parent backlash, only staff now use the system. Scotch College boarding school had iris-scanning technology installed but has since turned off the technology.

The South Australian Government should also jettison the “spy toys” mentality and instead of cutting $260 million from the police budget and closing police stations, allow SAPOL to concentrate on hiring and training new officers.

The real terror in a liberal democracy is winding back our privacy rights so that images of our children, our DNA and fingerprints are used by government and security forces for purposes beyond our understanding.

Malcolm King, an Adelaide writer, works in generational change and is a regular InDaily columnist.

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