We must balance public safety and the right to privacy

Jo Haylen is Labor MP for Summer Hill

My generation of Australians will be the last to remember a life before the internet.

I remember waiting with baited breath through the whirs and clicks of my parent’s dial-up so I could finish my latest assignment or gain access to that magical thing called email.

Like all of us, I now have a digital life I couldn’t have imagined when I was growing up. Our lives are increasingly mediated by smartphones and social media. We have access to a cornucopia of information, right at our fingertips.

This is a good thing.

Technology allows us to engage with others in ways we could never have believed possible. It will continue to revolutionise the way we communicate.

But we have a responsibility to be ethical and law-abiding citizens in our digital lives just as much as we do in real-time. We must be held to the same standards of humanity: we must look out for one another, be respectful of difference and diversity, and conduct ourselves in a way that is just and kind. We must act on our computers as we do in our communities.

People who break the law, whether it is on- or off-line, should be held to account and prosecuted under the rule of law. This includes people who wish to do us harm. But we should also be subject to the same protections as in the real world and afforded the same rights.

When the Abbott Government introduced its metadata retention laws last year, progressives rightly expressed concerns about the impact on Australians’ rights to privacy and due process under the law. Progressives were rightly appalled that government agencies could access their metadata without a warrant and that the list of agencies allowed to do so would be at the discretion of the Attorney-General.

An FOI request revealed that 61 agencies – including Australia Post and the RSPCA – have applied for warrantless access to our metadata.

The rationale behind the law is to protect us from terrorism. In the wake of the horrific events in Parramatta, Paris and Beirut, Australians are understandably wary and vigilant when it comes to public safety. The community wants to know that the Government is doing all it can to protect Australian lives.

However, what the most recent events demonstrate is that far from a particular people or place, it is an idea that is under attack, a set of beliefs and freedoms that makes us inherently democratic and liberal. At the very core of our liberal democracy stand our rights as individuals, including commitments to free speech and privacy.

In a dangerous world, the safety of Australians should be a priority of Government, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of our rights as Australians.

I’m proud that National Conference agreed that a future Labor government will review these over-reaching metadata laws. In my view, Labor should remove the Attorney General’s discretion as to which agencies are able to access our data. Most importantly, Government agencies should be required to obtain a warrant to do so.

We should also provide assistance to Internet Service Providers who are bearing the burden of collecting and storing data and ensure they have the capacity to protect our data from malicious breaches and hacks.

We must also ensure that press freedom is not diminished by these new laws, which were amended to provide for ‘Journalist Information Warrants’. At first glance, such warrants might appear to give journalists a layer of protection not available to the general public.

In fact the warrants threaten the ability of journalists to protect the identity of confidential sources. Journalist Information Warrants will be issued in secret, without the consent or knowledge of the journalist or their media employer. Government agencies will have six months open access to two years of stored metadata – exposing sources and whistleblowers to prosecution.

My son will never remember a time before the internet and I wouldn’t want it any other way, but I do hope we’ll both enjoy safe and healthy lives built on the same rights and freedoms, not least of which are the rights to privacy and due process under the law.


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