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 in Humble Rise, 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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A glossary of neologisms related to politics, espionage and surveillance

Below is a list of neologisms I have penned over the past year, drawing from my observations, reading and direct experiences as a target of surveillance. Fauxcialist, Foecialist and Shamarchist have all been proven to exist during the Undercover Policing Inquiry in the UK. Field testing of others is ongoing. These were first penned and published during 2018-2019 and the list is a work in progress.

Badvice (n.)
Advice presented in bad faith with intent to misdirect the recipient’s attention or effort. Opportunistically dispensed by infiltrators who have gained the trust of their target individual or group.

Blockupation (n.)
A job belonging to a person intent on slowing or halting organisational function rather than supporting it. If directed by a third party, a person who blockupies may be considered a sloboteur. Also used to describe a position held long beyond the usefulness or relevance of the employee.

Fauxcialist (n.)
A person who appears to advocate or practise socialism, while acting as a covert agent for Capital. When a fauxcialist’s actions exceed those of observing and reporting, he or she may be considered a foecialist.

Flopportunity (n.)
A false opportunity secretly designed to fail or divert a target’s attention. A ruse in which a time or set of circumstances is created for the purpose of appearing attractive to a target individual or group of people. The objective of a flopportunity is to consume a target’s time and effort and ultimately deliver project failure or a poor return on time and effort invested.

Fluddite (n.)
A newcomer to a new communication platform (for example a Facebook group) who proceeds to overshare mediocre, banal or distracting content. Covert fluddites may be weaponised for the purpose of gaining military or political advantage by burying more meaningful or controversial content, or by boring or annoying group members such that they change their habits and either ignore or abandon that forum or platform.

Foecialist (n.)
A person who appears to advocate or practise socialism, while acting as a hostile covert agent for Capital. Deliberate actions undertaken by foecialists may include: disruption of group cohesion, sabotage of group events and undertakings, mismanagement of funds etc.

Respycle (v.)
To redeploy a spy to covertly watch a former target, sometimes within a matter of hours. Respycling is a low cost, but high-risk practise symptomatic of organisational over-confidence and limited available human resources.

Shamarchist (n.)
A person who appears to believe in or try to bring about anarchy, while acting as a covert agent for imperial or any other authoritarian 3rd party. The shamarchist’s actions can be similar to those of a fauxcialist or foecialist and may include: disruption of group cohesion, sabotage or slobotage of group events and undertakings, mismanagement of funds etc. Shamarchists may bear dated visual signatures and wardrobe items such as dreadlocks and jackets bearing embroidered patches.

Slobotage (v.)
To deliberately destroy, damage, or obstruct something, especially for political or military advantage, whilst appearing to under-perform or otherwise act with negligence in the provision of a service or fulfilment of a role (see also: blockupation).

Sloboteur (n.)
A person who uses negligence as a subterfuge whilst engaging in an act of sabotage. A sloboteur may also hold a blockupation within a target group or organisation.

Snooper-hero (n.)
A spy with delusions of their own moral superiority, proficiency and invisibility. Sometimes seen wearing fan-boy shirts featuring Superman or Batman logos or James Bond film posters.

Spyority (n.)
A person, task or any other thing that is regarded as more important than others by a spy or associated entity. A spyority may be set or determined by an agent, private investigator, client or controlling organisation.

Spysolate (v. )
To cause (a person or place) to be or remain alone or apart from others while maintaining the subject’s illusion of connectedness.

Spysolation (n.)
A state achieved after covert agents successfully “crowd out” or “flood” a target’s social and professional networks for the purposes of monitoring and limiting the subject’s sphere of social, professional and political influence.

Strategic incompetence (n.)
The design and use of phony ineptitude in a clandestine campaign to gain overall or long-term military, political or commercial advantage. Used to hobble, subvert, manage or otherwise control or limit an organisation, group or its dependents (see also: slobotage).

Thespionage (n.)
The practice of using professionally trained actors as spies. Employed by governments or corporations for the purpose of obtaining political, commercial and/or military information.

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How does covert surveillance breach the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

The use of covert surveillance techniques for political purposes, whether conducted by the public or private sector, conflicts with the fundamental human rights set out for all humanity in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948.

While the Declaration is a well-worded, widely accepted and precious document, it’s promise will only be realised when the citizens of all nations become aware of their universal entitlements under it. Where citizens remain unaware, human rights abusers are free to continue to cause harm without fear of being held to account for their actions. Critically, citizens must lobby their own governments to ensure that their human rights are protected under their domestic laws.

The UN’s 2015 publication of the Declaration states that it “promises to all the economic, social, political, cultural and civic rights that underpin a life free from want and fear. They are not a reward for good behavior. They are not country-specific, or particular to a certain era or social group. They are the inalienable entitlements of all people, at all times, and in all places — people of every colour, from every race and ethnic group; whether or not they are disabled; citizens or migrants; no matter their sex, their class, their caste, their creed, their age or sexual orientation.”

This post lists the Articles of the Declaration relevant to the subject of covert surveillance, so that victims of such activities may understand that the perpetrators are in breach of their human rights, and may also be acting illegally, depending on local laws. Determining whether actions are illegal lies beyond the scope of this article and the results will vary from nation to nation.

Article 1 – The spirit of brotherhood

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Simply put, spying on citizens for political purposes is not in the spirit of the brotherhood of humankind.

Article 2 – Human rights are universal

“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.”

Everyone’s human rights are protected in principle under the Declaration.

Article 7 – Equality before the law

“All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.”

Victims of surveillance are entitled to legal protections, as are all other citizens. Yet in many juridictions, domestic laws are at variance with the Declaration, either by absence or design. It is the citizens’ perogative to demand that local laws reflect the Articles of the Declaration.

Article 8 – Remedy under consitution or law

“Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.”

The challenge here is for the citizenry to determine which Tribunals or Courts of law are relevant in their specific state or nation. Complications may arise when state or federal laws conflict with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For example, Governments often have laws which grant special powers to their respective intelligence agencies. Significant opportunities exist for legal reform to limit such powers and ensure accountability for the actions of entities undertaking covert surveillance.

In Australia, if a citizen has a grievance regarding the actions of any members of the Australian Intelligence Community (which includes the ONA, ASIO, ASIS, ASD, DIO and AGO), lodging a complaint with the Inspector-General who oversees their legal compliance is an appropriate place to start.

Article 11 – The presumption of innocence

“(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence. (2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.”

The presumption of innocence is a key principle to consider when pondering moral and legal cases for and against covert surveillance. Covert surveillance activities include such acts as the infiltration of groups or organisations, the placement of recording or listening devices (including on private property) and the collection of data from personal devices and computers. I would personally argue that in the case of the lives of non-criminal citizens, no covert surveillance activities are justifiable if the presumption of innocence is acknowledged as a unalienable human right. Similarly, organisations which pose no threat of unlawful conduct should not be considered justifiable targets for infiltration by covert surveillance agents. However, at present infiltration is commonplace and in cases where criminal offences by individuals have been prosecuted, the human resources invested are grossly disproportionate to the crimes committed. For example, an animal rights activist who opposed fox hunting in the UK found himself romantically engaged with an undercover policewoman after she infiltrated his group.

Article 12 – Privacy is a human right

“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

This Article is critical to the subject of covert surveillance and human rights violations, but requires interpretation and discussion. For example, a party responsible for the infiltration of a group or organisation, or the placement of recording or listening devices on private property might argue that simply listening, observing and reporting might not constitute “interference”. But how might this argument hold up, once a victim becomes aware that he, she or they have been subjected to covert surveillance?

In my view, such an argument doesn’t hold water. Once an individual becomes aware that he or she is under surveillance, then that individual has an increased tendency towards suspicion and analysis, for which the awakened subject pays a heavy psychological tax. Feelings of trust and betrayal, anger and entrapment become intensified- none of which would have been occurred without the original act of covert surveillance, and its subsequent discovery. Where a subject suffers physically or psychologically as a result of the actions of another person or organisation, how could that fail to qualify as “interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence”?  Victims of covert surveillance have told many stories of psychological damage suffered when they discovered that people they entered romantic relationships with, or even married or had children with, were working undercover, often under a false name and with a political objective. The UK’s ongoing “SpyCops” scandal illustrates this perfectly, and the pains experienced by its victims will likely be felt for the rest of their lives and in some cases, the lives of their children too.

The careers of several “outed” undercover police provide useful examples of how political policing interferes with the lives of civilians. Some of these are explored in the book “Undercover: The True Story of Britain Secret Police”, published by Guardian Books in 2012. Some additional examples are linked below.

Article 19 – Freedom of expression without interference

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly stipulates the individual’s right to “freedom of opinion and expression without interference”. It follows that this should include any form of social organisation seeking to participate in government processes or to lobby for a political cause. Yet such organisations are commonly targeted for infiltration and interference. One of the most extreme and widely recognized examples of this strategy at play is the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. Greenpeace’s flagship vessel, the Rainbow Warrior was protesting French nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific during the 1980’s. A French intelligence operation firstly infiltrated the organisation, then used the information it obtained to plan and execute the sinking of the vessel. Photographer Fernando Pereira, an innocent man, was killed in the operation and the legacy of the mission and its aftermath has been widely documented in books, TV dramas, films and even a text-based computer game.

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