Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Jul 22, 1997
Published on: The Age
2 min read

Your mobile phone and credit cards may be spies, reporting your every move. As WILSON da SILVA finds, surveillance is an increasing element of the wired-up world.

WE are being watched. Every day our movements are noted and catalogued, our purchases meticulously recorded. We are being monitored on a mass scale, with no access to the information kept on us and little knowledge of its eventual use.

Not only are most of us not aware that it’s happening - there are hardly any laws governing it.

Even where there are laws, the amount of surveillance being undertaken is prodigious. Take telephone taps. New South Wales issues more warrants for bugging operations than all of the United States; 936 versus 926. The same may well be the case in Victoria. However, unlike NSW, where they must be reported to parliament annually, such figures are not released publicly. Suspicion of just about any crime is enough to be granted a warrant; not only will you never know you’ve been monitored but there is no restriction on how long surveillance can be conducted. 

If you’re not being tapped, you’re certainly being followed. A digital mobile phone is as good as a tracking device. So long as it is turned on, your movements are carefully catalogued - whether or not you make calls. Meticulous computer records of where you were and when, and whom you called, are kept for seven years.

Ask Michael Ormsby. The Londoner and dedicated mobile phone user was suspected in the killing of a fellow crack cocaine dealer in May last year following a $1400 drug deal gone wrong. When questioned by police, the 23-year-old had an alibi and two witnesses to say he was at least a mile away.

But records kept by his mobile phone company showed his journey from work to the murder scene in south-east London - right down to the street where the night-time shooting occurred - and back again, all corresponding with the time of the murder. A jury last month found him guilty, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Bruce Grobbelaar is another mobile phone user who could have done without. The former goalkeeper for Liverpool is this month standing trial for accepting a $4000 bribe to influence an English soccer premiership match. While Grobbelaar denies the charge, a jury has already heard prosecution evidence that he made a journey from Norwich to London the night before a key match for a midnight rendezvous with a Malaysian businessman, Heng Suan Lim. The prosecution claims that the exact route and time of Grobbelaar’s journey is recorded in cellphone logs.

“It’s something we don’t really draw attention to,” William Ostrom, a spokesman for the British mobile phone company Cellnet recently told London’s The Daily Telegraph. “A lot of people assume that if they don’t use the phone, they are safe from detection. That is not the case. We are helping the police with three cases at the moment.”

Much the same is happening in Australia, although police are reluctant to discuss it. Under Federal law, telephone companies are required to comply with police requests, and although officers are required to have a lawful reason to request the data - as defined by each state police force - they do not need a warrant.

But at least conversations on digital phones are safe, right? Experts say a good scanner and a computer can crack them. But they are a lot tougher than the older analogue phones; tricky enough that the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) had the Federal Government hold their introduction in March 1993 until the spooks were satisfied they could be tapped.

Then there’s video cameras. Never have they been so cheap, so small, and so disguised. You can pick up one for under $200, smaller than a box of matches and capable of seeing in low light.

For a little extra, the camera can come hidden in a smoke alarm, a clock or a book. Such devices come in very handy in investigations, such as the recent royal commission inquiry into police corruption in NSW. But there’s nothing to prevent them being used on law-abiding citizens, too. No laws govern visual surveillance, even of office toilets and department store change-rooms. Fighting retail theft is one thing; ogling at bare flesh or secretly monitoring the work habits of employees is another.

In Britain, closed circuit television is being used widely by local government. So far, $44 million has been spent installing 4300 cameras in city centres and shopping areas. By 1999, 5700 will be operational. The measure has reduced crime - in one instance, in Cardiff, by 13.4 per cent. In Newcastle - out of 1800 who were arrested - 1000 suspects have gone to trial based on video evidence.

Early this year Melbourne City Council introduced 10 video cameras in the city’s west end, around the King Street nightclub district. They are monitored by a private security firm between Thursday and Sunday nights and during public holidays, with the logs available to selected council staff as well as police and lawyers on application.

“The area had a bad reputation with after-hours violence around the nightclubs,” said council spokesman Colin Johnson. “It’s now regarded as a safer part of the city than it was.” Sydney is also considering cameras in time for the Olympics.

But such cameras are not always used to monitor bag snatches. The chairman of the NSW Privacy Committee, Chris Puplick, recounts how in an early trial in George Street, police were noting in their logs such essential crime monitoring data as “anti-airport protesters at Town Hall”.

Even greater powers of surveillance may soon be handed to police in Queensland and NSW. Law reform bodies in each state have recommended police be given the power to tap computers, modems, faxes and other electronic devices. In this way, every transmission sent via the Internet or fax would also be seen by a police surveillance team. Or maybe ASIO. Whether the target is Indian hemp peddlers or Timorese protesters, the technology doesn’t discriminate. Technology is value neutral.

Even without extra powers, the existing surveillance arsenal is impressive. The technology exists for police to plant bugs that transmit to a listening post three kilometres away, or that record conversations in rooms and transmit them down your own phone line at the receipt of a coded message.

Some activate your telephone while still on the hook; with computer enhancement, the sound quality is as good as a room bug, and requires no installation.

That’s just the police. Your employer too can play the game, trawling through your e-mails, whether private or not - legally. They are likely to already monitor what numbers you dial and how long you spend on the each call; computers can collate reports daily, showing every nuance of your phone usage.

But best of all is the information you provide free: to insurers, airlines, phone companies or anyone else with whom you deal. It allows them to build a profile of the kind of consumer you are.

A good example is FlyBuys, a Melbourne-based national scheme in which every dollar you spend can eventually earn a holiday or other reward. There are now 4.4 million people whose every purchase, when linked to the card, is recorded by the 17 companies in the group.

“What you’re giving away is extraordinarily valuable in terms of the dollar return to corporations that can sell and rent these databases, as well as mine you for additional business,” says the association’s Mara Bun. “What you get back is a terrifically small benefit in comparison.”

As you madly spend the thousands needed to reach your goal, you hand over a treasure trove of information: your tampon preference, what beer you drink, what kind of movies you rent.

Or it might be your bank. They may decide you are a credit risk because your banking habits match those of known defaulters - and they flag your file accordingly. Next time you apply for a loan, it might be rejected.

Whether the data is in a scheme or not, you never see it. Nor do you know what is done with it; the information on you belongs to the companies, and you have no access.

All these forms of surveillance can be used to improve society, from making the streets safer to allowing marketers to reach you more efficiently with products you might actually want to hear about. But the lack of rules on how the information is collected and used leaves it open to abuse.

Existing privacy laws need to be strengthened and their scope broadened, say civil liberties advocates.

In the US, if you are under surveillance for more than six months you must be charged or told of the surveillance. No such protection exists here.

Puplick is particularly critical of the ease of police access to personal mobile phone data.

“At the moment, the police write their own rules and are in charge of enforcing them. There is no method by which the public or the Parliament can be appraised about how that information is used.”