Australian law and data protection

The Saturday Paper

DON’T THINK DATA PRIVACY IS A BIG DEAL? Here’s a lesson from history. Before World War II, the Netherlands established a record of religion in Amsterdam, which the Nazis later used to round up people of Jewish faith, street address by street address.

“It led to the death of many of those people,” says former High Court justice Michael Kirby, who heard this story while in Europe in the 1970s as the chair of an OECD expert group drafting new privacy guidelines. “This had taught them how information was not neutral, information was sometimes sensitive, and sometimes literally a matter of life and death.”

Spurred on by its dark past, Europe has often led the world on privacy reform. The first national data protection laws, for example, were enacted in Scandinavia.

Now they’re doing it again. This week the European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force, which Kirby says is likely to inspire more stringent privacy regulations in other countries.

It’s the wake-up call Australia needs. Legal experts interviewed by The Saturday Paper say our own privacy regulation is weak, inconsistent, riddled with exemptions, and failing to keep up with technological advances. They claim our two major parties have left us exposed because they’re too cowardly to stand up to vested media interests, especially News Corp.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 26, 2018 as Witless protection.

Facebook and data harvesting

The Saturday Paper

THE CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA DATA SCANDAL has all the elements of a viral Facebook post: Trump, “honey trap” sex workers, fake news, secret recordings and dirty tricks to steal elections. The only difference is that Facebook doesn’t want you to share this story.

As revelations continued this week into how a survey app harvested data from 50 million Facebook users to boost Donald Trump’s election campaign, Facebook is fast losing friends. Governments are floating regulations that could curb advertising revenue, investors have wiped off more than $US75 billion of the company’s value, and indignant users are threatening to #DeleteFacebook. Angry emojis abound.

But for social media marketers and insiders familiar with using Facebook advertising for political campaigns, a more common response is the verbal shrug “meh”. Almost every aspect of the scandal was previously reported or was a predictable outcome of Facebook’s business model. So why did outrage boil over this time?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on 31 March 2018 as Facebook, unmasked.

Bitcoin has a massive energy problem

Eureka Street
Eureka Street

The digital currency Bitcoin consumes more electricity per year than New Zealand. Yes, the entire country. That’s the current estimate from the site Digiconomist, which puts the Bitcoin network’s annual power-guzzling at a staggering 42 terrawatt hours (TWh).

Here’s another way of looking at it. Each Bitcoin transaction consumes 346 kilowatt hours of electricity, which, in my suburb of north-east Melbourne, is enough to power 25 typical four-person households for a whole day.

The best thing on two wheels (a quirky history of cycling in Australia)

The Big Issue

PAUSE THE RACE – it’s time for a detour. There’s so much more to cycling than men with plucked drumstick calves pedalling up French hillsides, their backsides bobbing for the cameras. The bicycle is a technological marvel that completely transformed human societies in the past, and is now an essential tool for a cleaner and healthier future. Let’s take a look.

Download the PDF >>

Heatwaves, infrastructure and resilient cities

The Saturday Paper

IT’S 5PM ON A FRIDAY after a week of 40-degree days in Melbourne, and commuters are lined up at platforms on Flinders Street Station, desperate to get home.

But something’s wrong – all the departure screens are blank. Commuters check their smartphones, craning sunburnt necks. Train tracks have buckled, carriage airconditioners have conked out, and now a bushfire threatens transmission lines to the east, the city’s umbilical link with Latrobe Valley power stations. As blackouts cascade across the suburbs, Twitter bristles with the hashtag #Meltbourne. More than half a million people are stranded.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on 9 December 2017 as Hot in the cities.

In the ‘climate wars’ Tony Abbott is Hiroo Onoda

Eureka Street
Eureka Street

WITH THE COALITION’S flagged rejection of the Clean Energy Target and former PM Tony Abbott’s recent speech spreading climate denial myths, the media is once again talking about Australia’s ‘climate wars’.

But war is no longer an appropriate metaphor because former ‘enemies’ of action on climate change — the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Group, and the big three energy retailers — have crossed the trenches. All year they’ve been calling for effective climate policy, such as an emissions intensity scheme or clean energy target, to bring investment certainty and reduce emissions. Only the Minerals Council and the Institute of Public Affairs are left slogging it out in defence of coal.

Rather than a war, what we have is a classic ‘holdout’ situation. The conflict has finished, but a stubborn and deluded band of stragglers don’t want to believe it, so they’ve barricaded themselves in the hills to keep the fantasy alive. I’m referring, of course, to the small rump of conservative MPs in the Coalition led by their belligerent General, Tony Abbott.

The psychology of anti-vaccination

The Saturday Paper

WARNING: This article refers to dangerous misinformation.

It’s 6 o’clock on a wintry Melbourne evening and I’ve just received the venue address for a “secret screening” of the anti-vaccination film Vaxxed. I walk into a long, narrow room in Hawthorn Arts Centre with a table of books at the back. One children’s book, Melanie’s Marvelous Measles, tells of a girl who isn’t vaccinated but avoids the disease because she eats lots of raw food and boosts her immune system with positive thoughts.

I don’t have kids, and I’m here purely out of curiosity. In the morning’s press, a doctor described it as one of the most dangerous films he’d ever come across. In the month that followed, health ministers would slam it in the media, one of the film’s producers would be banned from the country, and a complementary medicine GP who attended this screening would be under investigation for helping anti-jab parents avoid vaccinations. How could a 90-minute movie be such a threat to public health?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on 2 September 2017 as League of vaccinations.

Data analysts Cambridge Analytica

The Saturday Paper

AT A PLUSH LOUNGE IN MELBOURNE’S SOFITEL HOTEL, the data guru behind Donald Trump’s election campaign is pitching his company to Australian political operatives.

Dressed in jeans, a thin check shirt and a brown suit jacket, Matthew Oczkowski, head of product at Cambridge Analytica, looks tired as he speaks with a couple of men huddled around a small black table. Two days ago he was in Sydney. Today he’s in Melbourne, presenting at a $600-a-ticket big data conference. Tomorrow he’ll be in Canberra, giving a spiel to senior Liberal Party figures.

Expectations are high. After the utter failure of traditional polling to predict the outcome of the United States election, Republican pollster Frank Luntz declared, “There are no longer any experts except Cambridge Analytica. They were Trump’s digital team who figured out how to win.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on 22 April 2017 as Data based.

Geoengineering against climate change

The Saturday Paper

WHEN THE THREAT OF CLIMATE CHANGE from greenhouse gas pollution was brought to the attention of United States president Lyndon Johnson in 1965, his scientific advisers didn’t recommend solving the problem by cutting emissions. They recommended littering the sea with floating glitter. Lots and lots of glitter.

The temperature rise could be offset, wrote the environmental pollution panel of the president’s science advisory committee, “by raising the albedo, or reflectivity, of the Earth”. This could be brought about, they informed the president, “by spreading very small reflecting particles over large oceanic areas”. And it would be cheap, relatively speaking – about $500 million a year.

Sounds crazy? The scientists were serious … and rather prescient. More than 50 years later, similar ideas to cool the planet are being considered to alleviate the symptoms of runaway climate change.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on 18 March 2017 as Particles of faith.

US goes rogue on climate

Eureka Street
Eureka Street

SPARE A THOUGHT FOR AL GORE. The recent US election must have brought back painful memories of his own knife-edge loss to George W. Bush in 2000. Like fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton, Gore won the popular vote but fell short of the Electoral College votes needed for the presidency.

Then there are the excruciating similarities in his pet policy area, climate change.

New power generation

The Big Issue
The Big Issue

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW about the energy sources of the future, ask the man who’s been there: Arnie. Last December, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the time-travelling Terminator turned “Governator” of California for two terms, posted a Facebook rant explaining why he was on a crusade for clean energy. “I don’t want to be like the last horse and buggy salesman who was holding out as cars took over the roads,” he wrote, beneath a photo of gleaming solar panels. “I don’t want to be the last investor in Blockbuster as Netflix emerged. That’s exactly what is going to happen to fossil fuels.”

California, where Arnie ran the show from 2003-2011, now sources more than a quarter of its energy from wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric dams. The state is also home to Silicon Valley, a hotspot for disruptive innovations. For anyone seeped in start-up culture, where stagnation is death and you’re only an app away from overturning a legacy industry, renewable energy looks like the next big thing – Electricity 2.0.

SA power play backfires

Eureka Street
Eureka Street

WHAT A LOVELY DAY FOR SCRAREMONGERING. On 7 July this year, South Australia experienced a cold snap. As residents turned on their heaters, the still and cloudy conditions meant wind and solar power couldn’t contribute much to meeting electricity demand. The last coal plant at Port August had closed a few months before, pushed out of the market by renewable energy.

Sulphur sunshade is a stupid pollution solution

Eureka Street
Eureka Street

IT’S A CREDO of consumer capitalism: never address the cause when you can create an industry treating the symptoms. This is the logic behind many profitable businesses, from cholesterol-lowering pills that compensate for poor diet and lack of exercise to factories that recycle unnecessary packaging.

Now there’s a new technofix on the table, and it’s called geoengineering.


The Big Issue

Toxic, poisonous, deadly – in the last few years, sugar has attracted some less-than-sweet commentary both here and overseas. But Australia remains one of the world’s biggest sugar exporters. Greg Foyster heads north to discover what effect, if any, the recent controversy is having on the industry.

BRIAN COURTICE COMES from a long line of cane growers. His grandfather started cutting cane in 1910 and farming it in 1922. Two of his grandfather’s brothers formed the Sugar Workers Union in Bundaberg and organised a canecutters’ strike in 1911. Brian’s father, also a cane grower, was a member of the board for the local sugar mill.

For three generations the Courtice men have lived and worked at Sunnyside, a nearly 50-hectare farm in the Woongarra region southeast of Bundaberg. And for almost all of those days, sugar has been a mainstay of life. Now 64, Courtice remembers school holidays spent cutting green cane in the fields. In the mornings he’d put a mound of sugar on his cornflakes, and three sugars in his tea.

But Courtice doesn’t put sugar in his tea anymore. Sitting on his front veranda and nursing a mug of Bushells sweetened only with honey, he explains that as he got older he became increasingly concerned about the relationship between sugar consumption and dental cavities. Courtice has the weathered skin of a farmer – his hands are tanned and calloused, with crescents of dirt under the fingernails – but his teeth have suffered worse deterioration. “I’ve got a mouth full of fillings from when I was a kid from using too much sugar,” he says.

Hotting up

The Big Issue
The Big Issue

Heatwaves have killed more Australians than any other form of natural disaster. Although there are now signs extreme weather patterns are being taken more seriously, is enough being done – or will more vulnerable people die?

SUFFERING THROUGH A scorching summer’s day is, quite literally, an act of patriotism. Last year, a group of academics from Macquarie University published a study examining extreme heat (meaning unusually hot weather for that location) in Australia from 1844 to 2010. They discovered that more people had died from the heat on 27 January than any other date, and suggested this was probably due to 
the aftermath of boozy Australia Day barbecues in the sun.

It says a lot about Australians’ attitude to hot weather. At the peak of summer, Australians gather in the sun, cook over coals, and then drink diuretic beverages, pissing away every last drop of deference to the climate.

A call to inaction

The Big Issue
The Big Issue

I HAVE A cause to promote, but I’m not asking you to sign a petition, lobby your local member of parliament or take to the streets in a procession of orderly outrage. I don’t want you
 to do anything, because what I want to take action against is taking action itself.

I am proposing a National Day of Not Doing Much.