I thought of this when I saw recently that the Australian Security Services and Police want to have legislation forcing all Australian telephone and internet usage to be retained for two years so that these records are available if and when the authorities want to have access to them. The argument is that technology today makes it relatively easy for those with criminal intent to communicate in ways that make it increasingly difficult for the authorities to keep track of what is going on. In turn this makes the task of safekeeping Australia and Australians more difficult.
Ever since the events of 9/11 we have seen knee-jerk reactions to the issues of security and policing. The fear of possible terrorist attacks has been used to introduce legislation that subverts long-held and immensely valuable principles such as individual rights to privacy and to free association, the presumption of innocence, the right to legal representation, habeas corpus, and a transparent legal process. Today in most of the western world - certainly in the USA, Great Britain, and Australia - we have legislation similar to that which traditionally has been used only by totalitarian or potentially totalitarian regimes. This has lead to activities by our Police and Security Services today which, in an earlier time such as the Cold War period, we in the west rightly condemned.
Those supporting this shift argue that, for those with nothing to hide, there is nothing to fear. Of course, in theory, they are right. However taking such a stance is really to consider the issue from a simplistic perspective. It is based on the premises that those in authority will always act in ways that are totally ethical and that they will always observe strict probity - and such premises are palpably false as is shown regularly by the all-too-frequent investigations into corruption and unethical behaviour of those in positions of trust.
Some years ago I was appointed a Justice of the Peace in Victoria and, subsequent to that, I sat on the Bench at two local Magistrate's Courts in Melbourne. Prior to sitting on the Bench all of us being commissioned were sworn by the Chief justice of Victoria. During this swearing-in ceremony as an Honorary Justice at the Supreme Court in Melbourne the Chief Justice of Victoria reminded those of us being sworn that, as persons now empowered to fix bail for accused persons, to sentence guilty people to periods of imprisonment and/or to impose monetary penalties, to authorise search warrants, to issue arrest warrants, and perform other activities involved in the legal process we had to ensure that we did not abuse our powers nor allow others to abuse the legal system – the rights of all people were to be respected in the administration of justice.
Criminal activity - including terrorism - is always wrong. But there are serious dangers in allowing untrammelled access to private conversations and legal activities and even more serious dangers in allowing basic legal rights to be removed. And activities which hide behind the screen of "in the national interest" so as to avoid any form of judicial or public investigation are the most dangerous of all. These, as the past has tragically taught us, always contain within them the potential for totalitarianism to emerge.
There is a balance required. However moving further along the path envisaged by George Orwell's "1984" is far from the way we ought to be moving.
Many years ago, Pastor Martin Niemöller in Germany wrote a well known piece lamenting indifference to abuses and atrocities conducted in Nazi Germany. He spoke of general indifference and inaction regarding Nazi treatment of the Jews, Communists, and Trade Unionists before concluding:
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
Pastor Martin Niemöller