Just about every bar in Singapore has automatic-flush urinals. My brother visited while I was there, and coming back from the toilet one time he quips, “That little flashing light is Lee Kwan Yew watching me pee, isn’t it?”
He’s a funny bugger my brother, but there’s more than a little ring of truth to it. Having lived previously only in Australia and the UK I wasn’t prepared for the profound sense of unease that subtly pervades your day when you live in a surveillance state.
I used to joke that there I probably broke seventeen laws before dinner time though I had no idea what they were. But you can guarantee the ISD did, and if I’d managed to piss off the right person, I’ve no doubt that sufficient evidence could be found to put me away for however long they thought was necessary to teach me a lesson. Or maybe they’d just fix it so I couldn’t sit down for three months.
I’m hardly a criminal mastermind or a violent scofflaw, but I’m no earnest rule-following “heartlander" either. The thought in the back of your mind that you’d better keep your nose clean, the self-censorship when talking about anything remotely controversial or political, the second-guessing yourself about whether this or that action might piss off someone with just enough power to make your life hard—it all generates a constant low level anxiety that was a large part of my distaste for living in the place.
So despite the standard of living my income there afforded, I left for Amsterdam. Not because I wanted to smoke weed so much as I wanted nobody to care if I did. For a while, I was able to relax.
The feeling of being watched and the low-level background anxiety is back. But this time, for everyone. I’m being melodramatic? You’ve got nothing to hide? Ok, quick: how much do you earn, have you ever cheated on your partner and do you have a family history of schizophrenia? Answers in a public Facebook status please. In any case, it’s not about having nothing to hide. It’s about being watched and the feeling of being watched. That some arbitrary bureaucrat can ruin your life on a whim. And they do.
And now the Australian government is diving in. Even scarier, this is from an Attorney-General who quite clearly has no understanding of the technology he is drafting laws about.
Tony Abbott has set the groundwork in place for turning Australia into a facist dictatorship. Once security services are are given these kinds of powers it is almost impossible to wind them back without some form of revolution (violent or otherwise) and I am afraid the Australian electorate does not have much of a taste for that.
I have no idea how we fix this problem, in Australia or globally. But it starts with people ignoring the Abbott government’s cynical attempts to manipulate the public into believing the abolition of privacy is a good thing.