Senator Scott Ludlam Denounces Imminent 'Surveillance Tax'

At the recent PAX Aus gaming expo in Melbourne, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam made a last-minute appearance to talk data retention, and how to convince Labor senators that siding with government's George Brandis on national security is not the right way to go.

"I was looking around for a community of smart, creative, flexible, tactical people who love going in to bat against powerful enemies, against overwhelming odds, and I thought, shit, I better go down to PAX."

That was the start of a whirlwind trip to engage an expo full of young voters who understand the internet. Before opening the floor to discuss ideas, Ludlam spoke for 20 minutes about the government moving to store consumer metadata en masse, for future use (or misuse), in the name of anti-terrorism.

The Three Levels Of Surveillance Psychology

"It’s not our role to just fold when someone says 'national security'. The balance that most industrial democracies have arrived at is that if the state wants to surveil your life, make maps of your social networks, or dig into your life and find out what you’re up to, they draw up an affidavit, and they go to a judge. It’s targeted and discriminate, to named people and devices. They have to be chasing really serious offences, and then they get a warrant. And that’s the point of balance. There’s that due process. There are reporters, and there are public interest monitors who can say 'Hey, you don’t need that warrant.' There are checks and balances in the system."

Ludlam spoke about the "Three Levels of Surveillance Psychology" he learned from a contact who worked on Tor. The first is utter disbelief that one's government would be involved in such activity. "Edward Snowden really blew that out of the water," he said.

"The second is, this isn't about me. I haven't done anything wrong, I'm not a terrorist. And the third, is screw this. We live in a democracy. And we deserve and have the right to live in a state without arbitrary intrusion by the state. That’s not a left-wing thing or a right-wing thing, it’s a human right. And it’s under profound threat at the moment."

That second one is a bit of an obstacle, though. And it goes hand-in-hand with the belief that metadata isn't meaningful, or as some have said, just the "envelope" for data. As one audience commentator pointed out, ex-NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden has said "We kill people based on metadata."

Ludlam repeated that for effect. We kill people based on metadata.

Metadata Is Not Like An Envelope

"I’m starting to realise that anybody who stands up and says metadata was like an envelope doesn’t really understand the technology," he said. "In parliament, the level of technical literacy is really, really low."

"Imagine a letter, right, the metadata is the name and address on the envelope, not the content of the letter." - George Brandis

Ludlam praised iiNet for standing up for their customers against an intrusive scheme that would, in the end, have costs carried down to the public. Our own Australian version of the huge data centre that would store all of our information wouldn't be hosted by the government -- it would be hosted by ISPs and telcos. That presents certain security concerns, as these companies will be looking to keep costs down, and inevitably those costs will be payed by the consumer.

Possibly the most promising idea presented was that of portraying these costs as a "surveillance tax" -- something anyone can understand (and loathe), regardless of their tech literacy.

Commenters in the Q&A session included engineers from telcos and government workers, and the point was raised that given the wide range of political views of the mammoth workforce required to complete this undertaking, some have even talked about including intentional security flaws to discredit the scheme. It was also raised by a telco engineer that sometimes, metadata isn't 100% correct.

It was a case of lots of questions without many answers, as Ludlam asked for advice on how to convince Labor senators to stand against George Brandis, and against the "national security" rhetoric.

"We need to make them more afraid of us then they are of being beaten up in the Herald Sun," he said. "The data retention bill is going to work its way through a committee pipeline and in February, Labor will come away with a couple of shiny things, and say 'we fixed it and made it safe', and then it will go through.

"10 Greens in the senate. probably three cross benchers, maybe four. We need 38 votes to stop it. So there are 25 Labor senators to make up the 38. And they’re going to vote for it, unless something really interesting happens that persuades them not to."