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Privacy - our choice

By Leslie Cannold - posted Monday, 29 January 2007

Privacy, as Victorian Privacy Commissioner Paul Chadwick recently observed, is a freedom most noticed in its absence. Sadly, we only seem to appreciate what we had once it’s gone.

Philosophers, having long accepted the inadequacy of words to explain the importance of privacy, often illustrate it with 18th century thinker Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon.

The panopticon is a circular building divided into cells constructed around a central tower. While occupants are isolated from one another by walls, they can be viewed by an unseen observer.


A prison? Absolutely, but more than this the building was designed to obtain “power of mind over mind by creating a “sentiment of an invisible omniscience", or what you and I might describe as the unnerving uncertainty that someone could be watching you.

The value of privacy is only grasped when we recognise that even if the surveyors do nothing with the information they gather about cell occupants - neither recording nor relaying it - it is their power to observe us if and when they choose that causes harm.

The Federal Government announced last April its intention to pursue what is in all but name a national identity card. The scheme has the capacity to compromise our privacy in relationship to government, and the mega-corporations (among them Unisys, Visa and IBM) expected to vie for the lucrative privilege of providing the technology to merge, match and share our personal information across the public and private sectors.

Current proposals suggest my card will contain my unique identifying number and name on the front, as well as my signature and biometric photo. The smart chip will contain - among other things - my address, my date of birth and details of my children and other dependants.

These details are mandatory, must reside in the ”public” zone of the card, and are protected by a PIN so insecure that the Australian Privacy Foundation has condemned the card’s technological design as “completely inadequate”. In other words, according to the parts of the legislation the government has made public, anyone with a card reader will be able to see the private details stored on my card’s chip.

This includes hundreds of thousands of government employees, health and allied professions and childcare workers. Last year Centrelink revealed it had to sack, sanction or turn over to the police or government prosecutors 2 per cent of their staff for breaches of “customer” privacy.


Some people object to identity cards on principle. They, like Liberal party official Tim Warner, believe that by forcing us to prove our identity to obtain government services, ID cards invert the master servant relationship of citizen and government. Governments only confirm such fears when they contend that those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear.

I agree with such principles, but my objection to the card is more practical.

I advocate for reproductive rights. Each year I spend time and money protecting my phone number (it’s silent), my address (not on the electoral rolls), and the names, ages and other identifying details of my children. I do this because a handful of my opponents are violent, as the murder of a security guard at the East Melbourne Fertility Clinic in 2001 proved. As far as possible, I try to protect my family from the negative repercussions of my activism.

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A shorter version was first published in The Age on January 15, 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Leslie Cannold is a writer, columnist, ethicist and academic researcher. She is the author of the award-winning What, No Baby? and The Abortion Myth. Her historical novel The Book of Rachael was published in April by Text.

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