The federal government’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs has literally cried ‘fake news’ in response to criticism of the country’s privacy protections made by a United Nation Special Rapporteur.
The claim was made during a feisty panel discussion at an Australian Human Rights Commission’s technology conference in Sydney yesterday, featuring the ambassador Dr Tobias Feakin, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to privacy Professor Joseph Cannataci and ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie.
The questions to the panel turned to how Australia could square its diplomatic work overseas – in which it advocates for citizen privacy – with arguably contrary domestic policies.
“I think that one of the best ways to do that would be for the Australian government to take the advice of a succession of Australian Law Reform Commissions which have told it quite squarely: you have to beef up your privacy laws,” said Cannataci.
“In order to be able to set an example on the international front you can no longer be in a position where Australia [is] without a bill of rights, without remedies for privacy on the domestic front, without a whole range of safeguards which exist in other places,” Cannataci added.
Improved privacy legislation “would strengthen Australia’s credibility on the international front”, Cannataci added.
As the next question to the panel was being read out, Feakin interjected, saying: “I’m not going to let that go unanswered.”
“We feel we have a pretty strong position in terms of privacy regulation. From the picture that you paint it would appear no-ones privacy in this room is protected and that’s a fundamental distruth,” Feakin said, before calling out: “Fake news! Fake news!”
As members of the audience groaned, Cannataci responded “I understand why you have to say that” prompting laughter and applause. “I’m saying get your act together,” he added.
Snark of the covenant
The government’s International Cyber Engagement Strategy – authored by Feakin and published in October last year – outlines the government’s approach on a range of issues including human rights and democracy online.
“Of particular relevance in cyberspace are the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of association, and the protection against arbitrary interference with privacy. Each of these rights are enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” the document states.
Article 17 of the covenant states that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence…”
Arguably, given the government’s metadata retention scheme which began in October 2015, and its current push for legislation to boost the ability of law enforcement agencies to access to communications using encrypted services, Australia’s commitments as a signatory of the covenant are being dodged.
A report in May coordinated by Digital Rights Watch and endorsed by a range of human rights organisations called for the repeal of the country’s mandatory data retention legislation and new laws to protect individuals’ privacy.
Earlier in the session, Feakin repeated the government’s stock line on encryption, saying “It’s not a conversation about backdoors, it’s not about trying to weaken the fundamentals of encryption.”
Cannataci said he had serious concerns about the encryption crackdown. "My job is to speak truth to power and to remind governments to improve privacy... rather than useless surveillance of millions of their own citizens," he said.