Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Jul. 5, 1997
9 min read
TECHNOLOGY | For their eyes only

It’s spooky. Your phone, fax, e-mail, Internet and credit card use, plus personal information in corporate databanks, means you are being shadowed as never before, writes Wilson da Silva.

WE ARE being watched. Our everyday movements are noted and catalogued, our purchases meticulously recorded. We are being monitored on a mass scale, with limited access to the information kept on us and little knowledge of its eventual use.

Not only are most of us unaware that it’s happening, but there are also few laws governing it.

Even where there are laws, the amount of surveillance being undertaken is prodigious. Take telephone taps: in the year to June 1993 (the last available figures) more warrants were requested by law enforcement agencies for bugging operations in NSW than in all of the United States, according to the NSW Privacy Committee. The suspicion that you’re involved in crime is sufficient grounds for authorities to seek a warrant in NSW; not only will you never know you’ve been monitored, there is no restriction on how long the surveillance can go on. 

If you’re not being tapped, you’re certainly easy to follow. A digital mobile phone is as good as a tracking device. As 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 mobile phone user was a suspect in the killing of a fellow crack-cocaine dealer in May last year. When questioned by police, the 23-year-old had an alibi and two witnesses to say he was kilometres away at the time the crime took place.

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.

Bruce Grobbelaar is another mobile user who could have done without. The former goalkeeper for Liverpool is this month standing trial accused of accepting a $4,000 bribe to influence an English soccer premiership match. While Grobbelaar denies the charge, a jury has heard prosecution evidence that he travelled from Norwich to London the night before a key match for a midnight rendezvous with a Malaysian businessman, Heng Suan Lim. The prosecution claims 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 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.”

Much the same is happening in Australia, although police are reluctant to discuss it. Telephone companies are required to comply with police requests and, although officers must have a lawful reason - as defined by relevant State and Federal legislation - to seek the data, they do not need a warrant. A spokesman for the NSW Crime Data unit, a sub-branch of the State Intelligence Group, says the unit receives many requests from police for mobile phone data, but he declines to specify the number of requests or the nature of investigations.

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 analog phones; tricky enough that in 1993 the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) had the Federal Government halt the introduction of digital phones in Australia until the spooks were satisfied the phones could be tapped.

Then there’s video cameras. Never have they been so cheap, so small and so disguised. For less than $200 you can buy one that is smaller than a box of matches, capable of seeing in low light and which has TV-quality images. For a little extra, the camera can come hidden in a smoke alarm, a clock or a book. Such devices came in very handy at the Wood Royal Commission. While

no-one may be crying for crooked detectives, there’s nothing to stop video cameras being used on law-abiding citizens, too, even in office toilets or department store change-rooms. Fighting retail theft is one thing, secretly monitoring people is another.

In Britain, closed-circuit television is widely used by local government. So far, $44 million has been spent installing 4,300 cameras in city centres and shopping areas. By 1999, 5,700 will be operational.

After a number of trials, Sydney City Council has decided, in principle at least, to introduce cameras into the CBD in time for the Olympics. But the technology has not always been used to monitor bag snatches. The chairman of the NSW Privacy Committee, Chris Puplick, says that in an early trial in George Street police were noting in their log books such essential crime monitoring data as “anti-airport protesters at Town Hall”.

Even greater powers of surveillance may soon be handed to police. A NSW Law Reform Commission report released in May recommends law enforcement agencies be given the power to tap computers, modems, faxes and other elec-tronic devices. In this way, every transmission sent via the Internet or by fax could also be seen by police. Or ASIO. Whether the target is drug peddlers or Timorese protesters, the technology doesn’t discriminate. It is value neutral.

Even without these powers, the surveillance arsenal is impressive. The technology exists for police to plant bugs that transmit to a listening post three kilometres away or to record room conversations and transmit them down your own phone line at the receipt of a coded message. Some activate your phone while it’s still on the hook; with computer enhancement, the sound quality is good - and it requires no installation.

That’s just the law enforcement end. Your employer can trawl through your e-mail, whether it’s private or not. Employers may already monitor what phone numbers you dial while at work and how long you spend on each call; computers can collate daily reports, showing every nuance of your usage.

Best of all is the information you provide free - to insurers, airlines, phone companies or anyone else with whom you deal. Companies then build a profile of the kind of consumer you are.

Take FlyBuys. There are 4.4 million Australians whose every purchase, when linked to a FlyBuys card, is recorded by the 17 companies in the group. The Australian Consumers Association has calculated that it would take you $36,000 to earn a flight from Sydney to Brisbane; for the same price, you could fly there and back 140 times.

Although FlyBuys does not sell its data outside the 17 participants, other schemes do.

“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 Mara Bun of the Australian Consumers Association. “And what you get back is a terrifically small benefit in comparison.” As you spend, you hand over a treasure trove of data: your tampon preference, how much beer you drink, what kind of movies you rent. Pretty soon, the scheme operators know more about you than does your own mother.

Or it might be your bank. It may decide you are a credit risk because your banking habits match those of known defaulters - and it flags your file accordingly. Next time you apply for a loan, it might be rejected - but not because of who you are or what you earn. This latter technique is known as “data mining”. 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 for the betterment of society - from making the streets safer to allowing marketeers to reach you more efficiently. But a lack of rules and laws on how the information is collected and used, and by whom, can leave it wide open to abuse.