Legendary 18th century British author Samuel Johnson is most often credited with the quote, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Regardless of its source, that powerful message has resonated through the centuries.
It is a warning against actions which are deliberately or inadvertently presented as bringing benefits to society but which have hidden or unforeseen consequences that are ultimately negative. The right to privacy is not something we should surrender unquestioningly to those who claim to have our best interests at heart.
For example Australians generally expect that if they are acting within the law they can go about their lives without fear of harassment or surveillance from law enforcement or security agencies. That applies to personal conversations, private telephone conversations and the use of online technologies.
While many people may feel uneasy about the proliferation of CCTV cameras for surveillance in public places, the majority accept this intrusion on their privacy as they recognise that it helps reduce crime and can be used to identify perpetrators of criminal or anti-social behaviour. This acceptance is reliant on the responsible use of the security footage. Public support for such measures would wane quickly if such material were used to embarrass or humiliate people who had committed no crimes.
This is exemplified by the ongoing controversy in the United States about the use of full body scanners at airports and the unauthorised release of footage revealing intimate body details of travellers.
The case for the introduction of full body scanners assumes that public concern about the threat of terrorism outweighs concern about the potential invasion of privacy. However there are powerful arguments for why societies should not give up their freedoms lightly and most certainly not without adequate scrutiny.
Technology has brought a new level of complexity to the debate about personal freedom. So-called internet trolls hide behind anonymity to attack and denigrate others who have ventured online under their real identity. Of course anonymity has been essential for those living under oppressive regimes in order to tell their stories to the world and to mobilise support within their countries.
Protest movements mobilised by the use of social media in countries such as Iran and Egypt would not survive if people were unable to hide their identities. However the practice of creating anonymous identities can have dubious motives and can open up opportunities for criminals to engage in illegal activity. The question for all open democratic societies is how much freedom the majority of law-abiding individuals are prepared to sacrifice so that perpetrators of crime can be apprehended.
That question was raised directly this week by the apparent back flip of Attorney General Nicola Roxon concerning the mandatory collection and storage of at least two years of data recording the online behaviour of Australian citizens. Nicola Roxon has previously expressed concerns about such a proposal but now appears to be supportive of calls from law enforcement agencies for such a measure.
True anonymity online is hard to maintain and behaviour breaching the laws of defamation has led to litigation. Hackers who believe they can hide their tracks have often been apprehended, although there are a small number who are able to remain one step ahead of law enforcement for longer periods of time.
Given that anonymous sources can often be traced, is it necessary to record and track the internet activities of millions of Australians, who are doing nothing illegal, in order that a small number of criminals can be found? The principle applies in many spheres – take airports where millions of people are screened each year as a deterrent to the small number of potential terrorists.
But that does not mean it should be applied unquestioningly across society. We do not live in a police state. There is no easy answer to the conundrum of where personal liberty ends and the laws of the State are paramount.
It is important that there be a free and open debate about measures that seek to strip away freedoms and rights, to ensure that good intentions do not lead us down dark paths from which it is difficult to return.