Forum: Is energy waste the new terrorism?

Sustainability drive could be the next threat to civil liberties

Climate change is one of the leading topics of debate today. The issue has worked its way into the ICT industry, with just about every vendor making more or less credible claims for “green IT”.

Last week British computer scientist Andy Hopper put a different perspective on the green technology link.

At the Australasian Computer Science Week conference he presented a vision of a sensor-saturated environment, collecting behavioural data in order to help people be more responsible energy consumers.

That was guaranteed to raise objections. The most prominent came from Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff.

Perhaps she exaggerated her case by accusing Hopper of an “ethics-free, morals-free” stance on the subject; he did concede in advance that there is an ethical dimension to surveillance. Communication, he said, was part of a balancing exercise. He was “infecting” the pool of ideas, “to see what kind of antibodies turn up”.

A concern with Hopper’s presentation was his obvious enthusiasm for the mathematics of processing the data, which made any ethical sensitivity seem less important.

Hopper produced all the standard qualifiers; the data, he said, would be aggregated and not identify individuals. That’s hard to maintain when he had just shown a map of houses in a street coloured according to their waste-heat emission, for display on a public website.

This could result in a neighbour coming to my house with a polite inquiry that could lead me to discover a hole in my roof insulation. Though I worry that a mob could turn up, armed with pointed stakes. (Always consult the stakeholders).

The data will be used “to change behaviour by enticement”, says Hopper. What this might mean, he elaborated, is making it inconvenient to insist on one’s privacy. We give you the right to remain private, but you decide it’s “too much of a nuisance” to fill in the opt out forms.

Then there’s the argument the Facebook generation is less concerned with personal privacy than their parents. However, just leave evidence that you’ve been into your teenager’s bedroom while he/she is out and you’ll soon find how true that is.

Hopper also raised the “reciprocal surveillance” argument; I can watch you as easily as you can me. Somehow, I feel this might radically change social relationships – and not for the better.

Science minister Wayne Mapp, in opening the conference, insisted on the unimpecable scientific rigour of climate-change models; but when he describes sceptics by the politically loaded word “deniers”, I think of those avenging mobs.

It’s easy to see energy waste becoming, like terrorism, an excuse for surveillance. The previous Government, in 2002, proposed chipping at the traditional right to silence by requiring disclosure of passwords protecting computer files that might disclose greenhouse-gas-related profligacy.

The Law Commission knocked it back (Computerworld, January 20, 2003) but a couple of years later, it came back with the counter-terrorism angle and got the measure passed. It’s buried in Summary Proceedings Act (Section 198B), applying to a much wider field than terrorist activity.

At least ‘Big Brother’ has – for the moment — a Privacy Commissioner to moderate such activities.

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