The census is watching: on the surveillance of Muslims

I never put my real info on the census is an oft-heard remark from Australians about our country’s five-yearly mass data collection of citizens’ names and addresses, as well as occupations, ancestry and, if you opt to divulge it, religion.

Last year, there was a backlash against the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) suggestion to conduct the census every decade, with Bill Shorten commenting that ‘[t]he Australian census is an Australian ritual where once every five years you help measure what this country is’. And just a few weeks’ back, the newly elected member for Barton, Linda Burney, highlighted one such measurement in her maiden speech to Parliament: ‘I was born at a time when the Australian Government knew how many sheep there were, but not how many Aboriginal people.’

The ABS’s plan to increase the retention of national census data from eighteen months to four years has caused controversy, but another long-term data collection project of theirs is the Census Data Enhancement Indigenous Mortality Project, which is set to complete in 2020 (it commenced in 2009). Findings from this data collection have already been released for public viewing – it is an example of what good use census data could be put to, and of the value of accurate information for policy makers.

Somehow, however, the value of this project was not conveyed to the general public. There were calls for a boycott of the 2016 census and for the minister in charge, Michael McCormack, to be sacked. In most cases, the outcry did not articulate precisely what Australian citizens needed to be worried about: who would be interested in mere demographic information and for what malicious purpose?

Alex Edney-Browne, a PhD researcher in military drone programs, understands the outcry, though when it comes to concerns about the new data-retention rules, she sees far-reaching effects that have been missing from such discussions.

‘It must be said that census data can also be used for good,’ she says. ‘Governments use census data to identify what resources are required and the allocation of those resources. Census data is also used as evidence by academic researchers, journalists and opposition parties when the government is failing to allocate resources, particularly to minority groups.’

But, she points out, it can also be those minority groups who are of the greatest interest to the Australian Government for purposes of surveillance. ‘It’s mostly Muslim people who are inflicted with increased surveillance in our post-September 11 world’, says Edney-Browne. The Australian public is frequently divided over whether or not this is okay.

Edney-Browne spoke on a panel accompanying the screening of the documentary National Bird, at the recent Melbourne International Film Festival. The documentary follows three US Air Force whistleblowers who are veterans of the Coalition drone wars in the Middle East and North Africa. The three main subjects spoke about their depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even though they never participated in face-to-face combat. The film is a reminder that decisions to kill people with drones are based on information (mostly metadata) collected by the large-scale surveillance infrastructure underlying the drone program.

‘[Military Personnel] surveilling targets put together what’s known as a baseball card, which is a small profile of the target,’ explains Edney-Browne. ‘A lot of the time that information is based on quantitative data, specifically metadata. Metadata like who the person phoned, how long those calls last and whether or not their geographic location matched up at any point in time with the location of someone else who is a suspect. All of this metadata is aggregated and put onto this baseball card, that goes up the chain of command and is presented to President Obama who signs off on killing that person within a sixty-day window.’

A sixty-day window seems to undermine the US government’s argument that these individuals pose an ‘imminent threat’ to Western countries, and the more Edney-Browne explains, the more the PreCrime arrests in Minority Report come to mind.

The ABS writes on their website that longer data retention will limit the need for ad-hoc surveys of the public conducted by government bodies; however, there is no knowing whether that data will be used in the near future for the targeted surveillance of Muslim communities.

The new census rules certainly ‘increase the capacity for targeted surveillance of Muslim people’, says Edney-Browne: ‘Identifying information (names and physical addresses) is compulsory, and linked to other information about you like your religious affiliation, and will be kept on record for four years, rather than destroyed within eighteen months.’

An individual’s information from the next census will also be linked (via an encrypted linkage key) to the information provided in the previous census. These linkage keys will, therefore, allow individuals to be traced across their lifetime. ‘It is this change in the temporality of the census that is particularly dangerous,’ warns Edney-Browne. ‘The markers that Western government agencies typically use to determine “suspicious” Muslims are temporal in nature, for example: changing names to an Arabic or Arabic Muslim name, switching to an Islamic education provider or converting to Islam from another religion or no religion.’

Then the Australian census, particularly with its new data-retention laws, enables capability – but is there intention to conduct targeted surveillance of Muslims?

‘I definitely think so,’ says Edney-Browne, ‘The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and Australian Federal Police have already been surveilling Muslim communities, scoping out mosque attendees and asking them for interviews. Also, we do not know what future governments will want to do with census data. The popularity of openly Islamophobic politicians in the UK, US, France and here in Australia suggest that it could sadly get a lot worse for Muslim people before it gets better.’

The Twitter bios of racist and Islamophobic trolls often read as a combination of ‘proud racist’, ‘socialism is a disease’, ‘free speech advocate’ and ‘Aussie Patriot’. These people do not mirror Australia collectively of course, and instead give us bone-chilling insight into the minds of those opposed to Muslim people. But though such members of society go to great lengths to voice their hatred, perhaps equally as troubling is the lack of a consistent voice opposing the targeted surveillance and rising suspicion of Muslims in the name of counter-terrorism.

‘At the end of the day, there are a lot of us white, Western, non-Muslims who seem to care less about those who are at the brunt of this surveillance,’ says Edney-Browne. ‘There’s also this attitude of “If you’ve got nothing to hide then you’ve got nothing to fear”. So people who just use Netflix and think they’re a really boring person online may not worry about all this information being collected. But surveillance is still worrying even if you’re only doing innocuous things online because it’s a limitation on your freedom of thought.’

The threat of surveillance could well be what was behind the outcry of the recent census, and what is behind the ostensibly flippant attitude of those who say they never fill in their real information.

But the flipside is that those in Australia who would likely benefit the most from additional government support might be shooting themselves in the foot by withholding or providing inaccurate information on the census.

‘Those who support the welfare state as I do,’ says Edney-Browne, ‘are now incredibly cautious about providing their information to the government. We are rightly concerned about our privacy, but this has knock-on effects for the distributive functions of the welfare state.’

This caution extends outside minorities targeted for surveillance and also includes journalists and those in the position to be whistleblowers. The lack of public backlash about the surveilling of Muslims may be in part due to racism – but also, fifteen years in, the War on Terror is now deeply entrenched in our culture and even our economy.

‘Tell us what you’d love to do with your life,’ says the Defence Jobs website, ‘and we’ll show you how you can do it in the Navy, Army and Air Force.’ Disenfranchisement, interestingly enough, has for a long time been part of the appeal of the military. Military jobs are advertised as starting at a higher-than-average wage; for those who struggled to complete high school, on-the-job training is provided. As one whistle-blower in National Bird explains, his only options were the US military or homelessness.

Job availability and the rising cost of education are two growing stresses on young people worldwide; ‘a career like no other’, as the Australian Defence Force describes it, would look like an appealing option. Even the search process on the Australian Defence Jobs site is displayed like a Pinterest dream board. Do you want to be creative, have a work/life balance and do something meaningful? Then you might like to be a chaplain in the Navy or an aeronautical life support fitter. There are even jobs advertised for those who don’t want to give up on their dreams of being a musician.

In December 2016, Melbourne University will welcome the opening of STELaRLAB (Science, Technology, Engineering Leadership & Research Laboratory), in partnership with the world’s largest defence contractor, Lockheed Martin – the very same contractor that provides surveillance platforms to US Coalition militaries.

Who could disagree with the opening of a scientific research lab in partnership with a respected university? Such an agreement is just one tiny indication of the expansion of an in-depth, integrated surveillance network across the globe.

But then, if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear, right?

‘A significant function of surveillance is about determining the “average” so the outliers can be identified,’ says Edney-Browne. ‘The uninteresting person’s data is interesting because people who fall outside the norm can be spotted. If watching The Bachelor on-demand and posting photos of your brunch on Instagram is how the majority of Australians use the internet, then those who are researching the emergence of ISIS seem suspicious in comparison. Likewise, if census data reveals that Australians are increasingly identifying as irreligious, then recent converts to Islam stand out as unusual and worthy of further investigation. We should all be concerned about growing surveillance powers.’


Image: ‘Operation Allied Force Yugoslavia’/Flickr

Hannah Joyner

Hannah Joyner is a writer from Melbourne. She has written for Kill Your Darlings, Noisey, Beat and The Big Issue. Follow her on twitter @hannahejoyner.

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