Citizen John and the Genie

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There’s a common misconception in some circles that only criminals, miscreants and ne’er-do-wells attract the attention of investigators like Federal and State police, corporate and other regulatory watchdogs, the tax man and the like. Most of us blithely go through life believing if we always try to act honestly and honourably there is no risk we will ever be targeted. Unfortunately, it’s just not true.

Over the years I’ve acted for plenty of ‘respectable John Citizens’ who, for one reason or another, have found themselves completely blind-sided by sudden and unexpected attention focused on them by police or other investigative agencies. Almost invariably, their reaction is one of abject outrage – firstly, that they should be the subject of unwarranted suspicion in the first place, and secondly, that the investigative powers of the regulators should be so extensive and intrusive.

Do they really have such powers? Why? How did we let it get this far?

When the subject of invasive search and seizure powers, data retention, phone-tapping and secret government surveillance is debated in polite social conversation, we so often hear the sanctimonious refrain “I’m happy for anyone to listen to my conversations, because I’m not doing anything wrong, and I’ve got nothing to hide.” So many of us in ‘respectable society’ are content to blindly acquiesce to government intrusion into individual privacy on the basis that only criminals, miscreants and ne’er-do-wells will be affected by the exercise. Since we’ve done nothing wrong, we have nothing to fear.

But is that really true? Would any of us really be happy for others to eavesdrop on our private conversations, or delve into our personal records and communications, just because we’re not doing anything untoward? Or is the “I’ve got nothing to hide” refrain more correctly interpreted as meaning “Because I’m not doing anything wrong, I don’t actually believe anyone will ever try to invade my privacy?”

That question leapt into my mind recently as I scanned a smattering of headlines in the morning newspaper. On the front page was a story which alleged a tax office heavyweight was secretly tape recorded coaching his son, who was later charged with a multi-million-dollar tax fraud, on how to deal with an ATO demand for unpaid company taxes. Further in, I came across the story of a Crime and Corruption Commission investigation into the alleged improper use of a mobile phone seized by police in 2012, never returned, and later found to have been extensively used all over town while it was supposedly locked up in a police exhibit room. Meanwhile, iconic Aussie actor and comedian Paul Hogan was publicly labelling high-ranking public servants as “boofheads” for breaching strict confidentiality conditions around his 2012 settlement with the ATO. And the dust was still settling on reports one Queensland police officer was caught using the QPRIME database to look up the personal records of a female sports star, out of curiosity, and another was disciplined for revealing the address of a domestic violence victim to her restrained former husband, as a favour, then joking to his mate about how she would “flip out” when she discovered she had been tracked down, while AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin revealed how, due to what he called “human error,” a Federal police officer had illegally accessed the records of a journalist’s personal phone calls.

Do you ever wonder who’s minding the store, and who we’re handing the keys to?

Sometimes there are compelling reasons why we should relinquish some part of our privacy for the greater public good. But surely the circumstances will be relatively seldom, and the reasons should always be closely scrutinised, not glibly overlooked on the basis ‘it won’t happen to me.’ Because when we give the public service power to eavesdrop on our personal affairs, it won’t necessarily be the Prime Minister himself, or the Premier, or even the Commissioner of Police, who’ll be on the end of the line, deciding what to listen to, and what to do with the information, it will be whatever public servant, with their own peculiar human frailties, and with whatever foibles and whatever motives they may have, who will be picking up the phone.

So we should tread cautiously, and think carefully, before smugly surrendering our precious right to privacy to any human being. Because once the genie is out of the bottle, we will be left to contend with whatever mischief he may bring.

This article was first published in the Sunday Mail, 11 June 2017

Chris Nyst

Lawyer, Novelist and Film Maker

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