Surveillance and covert manipulation in Australia: Time for external oversight and accountability

Duplicity is more commonplace than I ever imagined, growing up as a young idealist.

Sadly, it isn’t the sole domain of people seeking immediate, personal advantage. It has also been institutionalised and weaponised. Some of these charlatans have been provided with, I believe, a distorted sense of moral superiority by their clandestine employers and are simply carrying out their masters’ orders. The remainder are just liars, manipulative people and/or psychopaths, best quarantined and treated for their psychological disorders.

I expect this problem is most pronounced for people like me who work in controversial areas: environment, politics, social justice… and even the arts (due to its potential to influence public discourse).

A world of possibilities opens up when the following simple questions are posed. Try asking yourself: might I be subjected to surveillance and/or covert manipulation? And if so, by whom and for what purpose(s)?

If you can imagine a “business case” for a watching/control brief on you, in this day and age, chances are, one exists. The more I have sought evidence to estimate the potential reach of this phenomenon, through reading publicly available literature and through personal experimentation and observation, the more shocked and sure of this I have become.

In my experience, bad actors (that’s what they are, regardless of who they are working for) will try and get as close to you as you will allow. They rely on your naivety to carry out their work. They can enter your workplace, social life and in some cases, even romantic partnerships (some high profile examples of these coming to light exist in the USA and UK).

Once you have identified one or more potential business cases for you to be targeted (ranging from your political opinions, political and not-for-profit associations, published works, interactions with government/industry, public profile and social contacts through to your personal net worth), it pays to be a little cautious of people who appear to help you, or want to help you. Be especially skeptical of those who claim to be there to help, but serially under-perform, or make small but significant mistakes at critical moments.

They may actually be there for other reasons- to report on your activities, to psychologically profile you and/or to quietly undermine your personal and professional efforts/work/best interests. In the first, an infiltrator seeks to establish, then maintain access, with options open thereafter. If trust is won, they hold the potential to redirect your energy, effort, influence your schedule and social movements and even sabotage your goals or prospects.

These physical and psychological violations, when combined with further physical surveillance by strangers (used while a person is in transit or in public space alone), is in my view, a form of torture. Outwardly, similarities exist to placing a tracking device on the body of an ex-convict out on parole or good behavior. In the case of a political target however, no crime needs be committed to attract such treatment. I consider this to be a heinous abuse and violation of human rights and strips the subject of their humanity and dignity. This is where critical reform is needed, because presently, Parliamentary or any other external oversight of intelligence agencies’ activities is non-existent in this country.

Surveillance, infiltration and manipulation are not new phenomena… they have existed for millennia. But the information age has made targeting, profiling and manipulating people on an individual basis more remotely manageable, technically feasible and commercially/politically attractive than ever… so a wider net is cast.

Do we have a firm moral, ethical and legal framework for the management of surveillance and covert manipulation in Australia? I would argue that we have none of these. Yet intelligence agencies and their private sector partners have incredibly intrusive tools are their fingertips, and appear to have unchecked reign over their application.

So how do we function in this age of surveillance, live profiling and personal and mass-scale political manipulation?

For the citizen, critical thinking, analysis and skepticism are, in my opinion, essential survival skills.

We need to continue to trust one another, but also we need to be prepared to withdraw that trust when evidence and intuition tell us that we’re being played.

Finally, we need strong, independent oversight of the Australian Intelligence Community and its international partners, to ensure that its resources are being used responsibly, and not to target non-criminal persons, directly or indirectly cause psychological harm or to discriminate in order to politically or commercially advantage some third party or minority interest. There is a legitimate case for some surveillance for genuine National Security reasons, but overreach happens.

We also need pathways for victims of oppressive surveillance and covert manipulation to seek justice and compensation for psychological harm caused by human rights violators (applicable to individuals, institutions and other entities).

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