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From Dreamtime to the brave new world

Justin Obodie (aka the Albatross) has flitted in and out of Webdiary for many a long year. He has finally been persuaded to write a piece for Webdiary, on a topic of particular importance to him. In his own words:

I have over the years brought up the topic and risks associated with computers, government and corporate information and privacy with many of my friends and associates. In general no one gives a stuff. Lambs to the slaughter maybe but what we see going on in America and the blatant invasion of people's privacy ( and the exploitation of their sub prime dreams) is an example of what I was warning people about over twenty five years ago. I was concerned then but more so now as most of the things I predicted have come true, and things can only get worse. This topic is very complex and most punters whom I discuss this matter with usually faze out or simply say; "why should I worry?"  In short they don't care - yet. Times and politics can change quickly and with governments being able to track the books you borrow from the library etc etc etc we may find our freedoms simply disappear into a mirage of political/corporate spin.

Thank you for this piece, Justin, on a subject that should be of vital interest to all Webdiarists.


From Dreamtime to the brave new world
by Justin Obodie

Back in the 1980’s I claimed to directors in News and Fairfax that if they carved out an area of geography and gave me access to the airwaves, the press and letterbox I could convince the majority of punters that black was white.

I also predicted (for reasons that were obvious to me) that Bertie Murdoch would become the most powerful media proprietor in the world. That was 1984.

The only thing that made my claim difficult was media diversification; fortunately our governments are aware of this and give lip service to diversification; not so much for your protection but theirs.

Initially I was working under the umbrella of News and in 1984 I was offered an open cheque book and the state of NSW to design, establish and execute the most intelligent and dynamic marketing system ever.

I declined (for ethical reasons I won’t discuss) and involved myself for a short period of time trying to use my knowledge (information) to assist small business. In general small businesses create employment and large corporations do not.

Unfortunately most small businesses did not have the time, the cash, or the understanding how to use information in a dynamic and profitable way. Most still don’t.

It did not take long before a director of Fairfax made me an offer I could not refuse and with an open cheque book and a piece of geography we call Australia we (in less than six months) had mapped and correlated census and other data in all the cities and major regional centres in our nation. It was a massive exercise but with the assistance of the ABS (another employer of mine) we succeeded in turning benign information into something that offered knew efficiencies and intelligence to using data.

The directors of Fairfax were extremely impressed, so were the directors of the ABS (finally with the use of computers their labours could be used to help business and government alike). The infrastructure had now been established and over time this intelligent marketing tool grew, and itself collected, enumerated and analysed data; about you and me. Over time other corporations copied what was now an unstoppable and sought after process. People profiling.

For many years now it has been a very easy process to analyse a state, suburb, neighbourhood or whatever; identify the residents by name, occupation, telephone number and more. In some areas I even knew the homes that had rusty gutters and other valuable information that could be sold to businesses to make a profit in an efficient manner.

At this point in time I am not going to describe the technicalities but if anyone is interested these can be dealt with as we discuss this topic.

Today all (retail) corporations (especially banks) probably know more about you than you would believe. The information they hold can be used for good and for bad reasons, but in our materialistic commercial world of things information is, on the first instance, used to make money, or to transfer your wealth to them.

Jenny Hume has on occasions preached the benefits of living the modest life: don’t get sucked into buying shit you think you need she says. I read and nod and nod and nod.

Why are homes so expensive to buy?

Today information means profit; it also means power. Those who have the information and the means to deliver it not only make heaps of cash; but also gain them unbelievable power. Bertie Murdoch knows this well.

The Internet.

About a decade ago I was asking some of my clients to consider using the original digital technology (Morse code/telegrams) in synergy with the new digital technology. It was an excellent way to save on the production and distribution of four coloured glossy brochures and catalogues (save trees and all that). Why not mail a cheap telegram (or its equivalent) to targeted customers and invite them to your website. You could even set up systems to produce web pages on the fly and invite everyone in Australia to visit their very own website: www.kathyfarrelly.com, an irresistible and seductive invitation for most.

But there are many dangers! Beware – more about that later if you wish to discuss them.

I actually ran tests and delivered invitations (telegrams) to selected neighbourhoods, inviting residents to a website I set up for the purpose. My clients paid for my research (spot ads on the invite) and we all made money, but not much; at least my research cost me nothing, rather, turned a small profit. The experiment failed miserably. The idea was for the future, about ten years I predicted.

About three months ago I received a cheap and nasty “telegram” (complete with tracking device/s) in the mail inviting me to a special website. I declined.


The original custodians of our nation used information for survival; they call it The Dreaming. Their information system was a complex and beautiful tapestry, a mixture of mythology and relationship between land, fauna, flora, and the heavens above which gave them security and continuity. It also was a dynamic information system which gave them the ability to survive in an unforgiving world. Their information system was not exploitive, rather co-operative; it did them well for 60,000 years or so.

Soon as you watch your HD plasma TV you will not only being watching it; it will also be watching you.

Over to you, your contributions and critical appraisals will be welcomed.

With kind regards

The Albatross


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Liberals have lost the "War on Blogs"

Time and again, the history of blogging has shown that online anonymity isn't quite as complete or safe as we might think. This won't be the last time that careers are threatened, and political earthquakes felt, as a result of blogospheric indiscretions by those who thought they were untraceable....

Unfortunately, all this will probably lead the Liberals to crack down on staff blogging - one might guess that a blanket ban has been instituted (or reiterated) in the Victorian branch already. Once the Schadenfreude has ebbed away, other branches and other parties might well do the same. We'd suggest, though, that this could only be counterproductive, and that the entire situation has only arisen precisely because of a widespread reluctance to engage with the possibilities of the new media of produsage.

Towards the end of the election campaign, Jason and Marcus Westbury pointed out in Crikey that the Liberals, above all others, had refused any involvement with online political initiatives. Reports since the election have suggested that the ban on online campaigning may have come down from on high, perhaps even from the artist formerly known as "she who must be obeyed", Janette Howard.

From these facts, it might reasonably be concluded that the lack of organisational engagement with blogs, citizen journalism or social media has meant that Liberal Party staffers and parliamentary representatives alike are uneducated about the opportunities and threats posed by these platforms.

A Liberal crackdown on staff blogging? I wonder if we will lose any of our contributors on WD? The Liberal Party is being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. With all the "in fighting" happening within the Liberal Party there is no sign of them winning government any time soon. They have lost he "War on Blogs"


F Kendall, the Australian Bureau or Statistics is by the law of the land required to conduct a census every five years as detailed in the Census and Statistics Act 1905. As such you are required by law to complete a census form and on it your name and address and neigbourhood (CCD) reference number, or in ABS language "the indictive".

The ABS in fact require that you supply your name not to spy, rather to collect more accurate data. This is good because it makes for the better planning and location of schools and hospitals possible, providing politics does not get in the way. 

In fact, up until the last census the forms themselves were destroyed after scanning. In short, there was never a chance that an individual could be identified by name from the tables produced. Now the ABS is allowed to archive them for genealogical and other  reasons until after we are dead.

There is, however, a very small chance that even though the names and addresses have been destroyed a piece (cell) of information may possibly be related to a real person.These statistically rare "cross matches' (as far as census tables/questions go)  are addressed  by randomly reallocating those unique cells or cells of very small value (in number) to other higher value cells within other tables.

For example there may be only one Chinese born 50 year old in a collection district or CCD (census collection district; there are around 30,000 covering Australia of around two hundred homes in each). He may be living in a CCD that records all income levels under $25,000; except one. Another table may record there is only one professionally employed person.

The easily identified Chinese born resident recorded on the country of birth  table is the professional - the local doctor in fact.

Another table will record the income levels of residents. His would be possibly identified; the one cell that records above $80,000. As such these unique  or very small cells are disappeared. The ABS statistically kills off the good doctor for his own welfare.

The ABS know its business and make sure that the data collected about individuals is in no way related back to real person. It is in my experience the most efficient and ethical of government departments; nothing to fear from the ABS. More to fear from the government of the day and how it uses/misuses or ignores ABS data.

One must distinguish between having to give information by law, giving information by contract and knowing when they are giving information at all.

For many it is not the information thing itself that so much worries them, rather the manner in which it is collected.

If our personal information is collected without our knowledge then I believe we have the right to be pissed off. 

I suppose it's a matter of common decency really; the ABS go out of its way to behave in a decent manner (as laid out in the Act) while other organisations, although governed by privacy legislation, may find the benefits in stretching the legal barriers far outweigh the risks of defending the legal grey areas.

Yep, it really pisses me off too when they try it on. The trick is to know when.

Catch me if you can

Justin, wanna know how my local council stuffed up and offered me a $50 grand a year 25 hour week job? Because I lived in the area their software spat out my address. They had no idea. Even when I rang up to let them know I was talking to somebody who was on "my" interview panel. Had I dutifully filled in the contract and the tax form and rolled up for work, I wonder what the lawyers would have figured out for my golden handshake. Or would I have been "done" for identity theft?

Richard Tonkin, business and risk manager for the City of Charles Sturt Council, owes me a beer I reckon.

Now, how to put the paperwork to good use?

Tracking cookies

Over the past couple of weeks I've set the comp to ask before accepting any cookies. Murdoch sites are incessant, and Fairfax not far behind.

At any rate, since my daughter signed up to a Disney club I seem to have been put on so many commercial mail lists that I'm about to change email addresses. My man-boobs do not need to be expanded to an F-cup thank you very much. Didn't even know the sizes went that far down the alphabet ...

If I thought that the boob-enhancer ads were the direct result of a nine year old girl signing up to a Disney site, I wouldn't be very happy.

Personal information

Thank you, David Eastwood.

It is reassuring that the school would not provide e-mail addresses:  I trust that the same applies to mobile phone numbers.

"...does not wish their information to be disclosed, shared, manipulated etc..." Personally, I do not wish my personal information to be collected, and collecting information now seems to be a national hobby.   Why, for example, should the theatre request my address when I buy my season's tickets?  (well, marketing of course).  Why does the Community College need my age when I enrol in a cooking course?

Recently I was required by the ABS, (with the threat of a $110 a day fine:  bill presented at the end of each financial year), to answer many questions re my health and income from various sources - from each of rent, interest, dividends, work.   That I was required to answer the questions to an interviewer completely negated their claim of "confidentiality", as far as I was concerned.

Aside:  A bizarre aspect of this was that one of the first questions was "Do you have Alzheimer's disease"?    Surely either a "yes" or "no" response to this would have to be suspect.


I left out "collected" - of course we always have the right to prevent our information being collected in normal commercial transactions, and any party who fails to comply with our wishes in this respect is in serious breach of the law - with the exception of at least some government agencies such as ABS.

You remind me of Catch-22. It states that you can be discharged from the forces and be sent home from the war if you are crazy, unless of course you mention that you want to be sent home, in which case you are clearly not crazy.

Privacy regimes?

David Eastwood:  "Privacy regimes are similarly getting more powerful..."

Would you care to explain what these regimes are?  And how they can be accessed by the average citizen,  whose privacy this article is about?


Most western democracies have enacted major privacy reform in the last 15 or so years, Australia's National Privacy Principles and Privacy Act aren't actually bad examples of good strong citizen protection.  And, without digging deep I know that they have been under review and will be further strengthened.  I certainly run into them on a daily basis - for example my kids' school will not give me e-mail addresses from my kids' classmates parents - I need to ask them personally.  I also have the option up front to not publish any of our contact details to other parents at the school.

Basically the position in Australia at present is that if a citizen does not wish their information to be disclosed, shared, manipulated etc, then they do have that control.  That said, there are always practical examples where this has failed but I'm not aware of too many examples where gross abuse has happened in Australia and not been redressed appropriately.

Forced empowerment...

Nice piece Justin.  My take on the issues you raise might be slightly different.  I agree that surveillance of one's behaviour, preferences, motives etc. is becoming ever more possible, and broad reaching.  But, privacy regimes are similarly getting more powerful, in part limiting the damage - where sovereignty can be exercised. 

On the other hand, where governments have no control over what we access, look at and participate in - and where we revel in the democratic freedom that offers us, it must fall upon us to take control of our own destiny and privacy.  We must be at once aware of the risks and dangers, vigilant to their threat and be able and prepared to respond to protect ourselves. 

So, the new information world forces us to be educated, aware and engaged, in our own interests.  Is that a bad thing?  Looking at the flip side, is it in society's interests as a whole that we might perceive or exercise a right NOT to engage and depend on our governments and societies to protect us where they simply can't?

Perhaps there is less room for passengers on the bus than there once was.

Cat And Mouse

Since the dawn of time, man has attempted to control man. Since the dawn of time, man has attempted to escape those very clutches. The Internet is a lot like that. For every safe (no matter how technical), there will be a safe cracker......

The Already Big Thing on the Internet

What sites do you visit on the net and who is watching you?

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