Playing the terrorism card

October 07, 2017

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks during a press conference at a special meeting on counter-terrorism of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) at Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, October 5, 2017. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING

I am far from a tinfoil wearing, anti-vaxxer, government conspiracist type.

I don’t believe vaccines cause autism, I have no problem with fluoride in the water and I don’t believe the moon landing was actually filmed in a Hollywood backlot.

But when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced he wanted to access photos of every Australian with a driver’s licence, I felt a little bit uncomfortable.

Mr Turnbull floated the idea at the recent Council of Australian Governments meeting with state premiers as a way to improve our counter-terrorism capabilities.

One by one the state premiers hopped on board with the rather extreme proposal to hand over the photos of everyone who has ever been snapped for a licence to create a facial recognition database.

The idea was probably made a lot easier by the senseless massacre in the United States this week.

People are less focused on civil liberties when everyone is concerned about safety.

Ideas that would have once seemed pretty outrageous get approved with little debate.

Mr Turnbull said the measures were needed to improve our counter-terrorism capabilities, and what he said made sense.

Terrorists are unlikely to stick to arbitrary lines on a map of Australia, so anything to speed up communication and information sharing has benefits.

But how could it be used?

Every day there are more CCTV cameras on our streets and roads.

Facial recognition technology has advanced greatly in the last few years, as anyone who has been autotagged in a drunk photo on Facebook can attest.

What is to stop a database tracking us and where we go via the thousands of CCTV cameras installed across the country?

Mr Turnbull denied the measures amounted to mass surveillance, but things can change quickly.

Just one terrorist attack and a skittish government might give the okay to use the facial recognition database more liberally.

Could it get to the point where anyone wanted on a warrant will get spotted if they walk on any street with a government linked CCTV camera?

Would anyone the government might consider troublesome, such as political activists, be tracked in real time across the country thanks to this database?

Perhaps nothing like this will ever come to pass and the database will just be used to help law enforcement with counter-terrorism.

But it makes me worried at how few people are concerned about this.

In the 1980s, the Hawke Labor Government proposed a national identification card, dubbed the Australia Card.

The ID would make it easier for the government to crack down on welfare fraud and tax avoidance, but after concerns from civil libertarians and the opposition it was quietly abandoned.

Where are the civil libertarians now?

Nowadays it seems like anything that cracks down on our civil liberties gets a free pass as long as we are told that it is to combat terrorism.

Barclay White is a journalist at The News.

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