Privacy pose shows the minister is off his Facebook

It must have felt nice for Communications Minister Stephen Conroy not to be the bad guy. Just for a little while.At a Senate estimates hearing last week, being peppered by questions finding even more flaws in his internet filter plan, Conroy seized an opportunity to direct a bit of fury Google’s way. And at Facebook, too – the minister was on a roll.

Conroy accused Google of the ”largest privacy breach in history across Western democracies” for its apparently accidental sampling of publicly accessible data from home wireless internet networks. Then he claimed Facebook had ”gone rogue” because the social network’s privacy policy was getting increasingly complex and confused.

”What would you prefer?” asked Conroy. ”A corporate giant who is answerable to no one and motivated solely by profit making the rules … or a democratically elected government with all the checks and balances in place?”

Sure, Conroy’s sudden, passionate defence of the privacy of Australian Facebook profiles could be totally sincere. But recall this: he is a member of a government that is about to install body scanners in airports. Body scanners aren’t ”mistakes”, as Google described its inadvertent over-collection of data.

They’re designed to peek under clothes and investigate the nude contours of travellers. Some are able to capture and store images. Now that’s a privacy problem to be worried about.

At least when a corporation breaches privacy, it’s relatively easy to deal with.

If you don’t like Facebook’s privacy settings, you can, you know, quit Facebook. It’s not hard: it’s in the ”Account Settings” tab on the top right corner of the site. If enough people do, Facebook will have to reform its ways, or go out of business.

And if you don’t like that your wireless network is unsecured for Google or your neighbours to look at, secure it.

Most Australians now run high-powered wireless networks in their house and use them for online banking. Perhaps a few minutes thinking about network security wouldn’t go astray.

Certainly, Google should be chastened by its blunder. If they have broken any Australian laws, then they should be punished.

But when the government runs roughshod over our privacy, that’s much more serious.

As Conroy was launching into Facebook, a genuine threat to privacy was winding its way through Parliament – healthcare identifiers, which form part of the government’s electronic health records plan. If it passes, every Australian will be allocated a unique number, and encouraged to store their health records in a government database. No information is as sensitive as health records. And these records will be accessible to half a million healthcare workers around the country. Indeed, that’s the point.

Ensuring information security in high-stress environments (like emergency rooms) or in busy retail environments (like a Medicare outlet) is no small task. It’s easy for computers to remain unlocked, or logged-in, even if just for a short time. So it won’t take very long for a serious compromise of security to occur.

In general, eHealth is a good idea. But what the government proposes is a universal, compulsory, centrally managed and bureaucratically controlled record system. Individuals will have no direct control over their own records. (Unlike, for instance, the private online health record systems available from Microsoft and Google.)

The eHealth scheme is an Australia Card for your embarrassing bowel problem.

Privacy problems are endemic to centralised government systems: 1000 Medicare employees have been investigated for spying on personal information in the past three years alone. That’s one in six Medicare employees.

There are problems in Centrelink too. In 2006, after a two-year study, investigators uncovered 800 cases of illegal snooping by 100 staff.

Now CrimTrac, the federal agency in charge of criminal databases (fingerprints, DNA, and criminal records) wants to control data from law-abiding citizens too (drivers’ licences, birth registries and passport photos), all matched up to the electoral roll and collected on a nationally accessible police database.

The CrimTrac head, Ben McDevitt, claimed police ”need to have access to the sort of data that is held by various governments in order to establish an individual’s identity”. He said some privacy may have to be sacrificed for better law enforcement: ”I don’t find that at all threatening or big brotherish.” How reassuring.

Facebook has been deeply stupid – abusing the trust of users, continuously changing their privacy settings, and playing fast and loose with personal information. The company has long seemed dismissive of many privacy concerns and it deserves to be harangued by the press and punished by the marketplace.

But at least you can quit Facebook if you’re unhappy. If a government department abuses your trust or compromises your privacy, you can’t do anything.