Privacy breaches in the age of COVID

September 13, 2020 |

Cicero said “Laws are silent in time of war.”  The modern day equivalent is “laws are selectively ignored in times of pandemic.”  In the area of privacy laws that variation is very apposite.  In this pandemic the Victoria Police have been notably more assertive (read aggressive), paternalistic (read preachy, especially the Falstaffian Luke Cornelius’ intemperate verbal lashing of this or that civilian who attracts his ire) and selective about which laws they follow (as in don’t follow) than their interstate equivalents.  By a large margin and from the outset of the COVID.   The latter point is illustrated by Victoria Police reportedly using mobile surveillance units to remotely monitor citizens for breaches of the COVID laws. 

Putting aside the concerning willingness of Victoria Police officers to adopt such a dystopian method of performing their duties, as they see it.  I would be very interested to see the legal advice which regarded those actions as consistent with the Privacy and Data Protection Act 2014.  It is particularly concerning given the units are being deployed where there have been no complaints to police or even evidence of a breach.  That is just blanket surveillance pure and simple. 

The article, ‘No justification’: Anger over mobile surveillance units at public parks, provides:

Mobile surveillance units are being used in parks and public spaces across Melbourne to remotely monitor citizens during stage four restrictions, fuelling concerns that police and local councils have overstepped their authority.

One of the units has been based at Victoria Gardens in Prahran for the past few days, but has also been seen at other locations around the municipality of Stonnington in Melbourne’s inner-south.

Part of a joint initiative between several Melbourne councils, Victoria Police and the Commonwealth government, the units are mounted with closed circuit cameras.

Prahran resident Denzil Griffiths said he was disgusted that visitors to the park on High Street were being remotely monitored, which he said was “reminiscent of what’s going on in Hong Kong”.

“This is just the latest intrusion in our lives and there’s absolutely no justification for this type of surveillance. This is a public park, where parents go with there kids, people walk dogs and old people go for exercise as they’re all entitled to do”, Mr Griffiths said.

The Age has confirmed there have been no breaches of stage four restrictions at Victoria Gardens and no reports to police.

Over the weekend, Mr Griffiths made a complaint to federal MP Dr Katie Allen, who holds the seat of Higgins.

A Victoria Police spokesman confirmed the mobile surveillance units were deployed in other municipalities across Melbourne.

“The cameras can help to capture and deter breaches of Chief Health Officer directions as well as other crimes and community safety issues. For operational reasons we will not be providing commentary on how many of these units are being used or where and when they are positioned,” the police spokesman said.

David Grayson from St Kilda East visited Victoria Gardens on Sunday morning and accused police of abusing new powers conferred on the force by the Chief Health Officer and the government.

“If you have a look around, everyone is doing the right thing and there’s absolutely no need for us to be spied on. They have no regard for our civil liberties,” Mr Grayson said.

He also doubted their effectiveness.

“Are you telling me that someone is watching a screen somewhere and then sends the cops over when they see someone having a picnic or holding hands?”

However, Liberty Victoria president Julian Burnside, QC, sided with the police and said the public health crisis justified the curtailment of some basic rights.

“It all sounds pretty sensible to me. The restrictions that have been imposed are justifiable, even though they involve breaches of human rights. We are in a war against the coronavirus, and when you’re in a war with anything, restrictions on your otherwise normal liberties are justifiable,” Mr Burnside said.

A spokesman for Stonnington council confirmed the use of the mobile units, which were regularly moved between sites.

“The City of Stonnington and Victoria Police are working in partnership on a number of initiatives to monitor compliance with COVID-19 restrictions as we enter the warmer months, in particular monitoring key public areas where gatherings and social distancing may be an ongoing issue,” the spokesman said.

What is really surprising is that Julian Burnside, the President of Liberty Victoria, endorsed this extraordinary step. He is living proof that a very good and successful barrister does not necessarily make an effective or even competent head of a civil society organisation.  The article quotes him as saying that what the police and Stonington City Council was doing was  was “pretty sensible”.  That is boiling down complex issues down to an essence that is beyond simple and well into realm of simplistic.  And silly.  Not surprisingly Liberty Victoria put out what is commonly described as a “clarification” of  Liberty Victoria’s position the next day.  More like a “run away” from Julian Burnside’s position.  It tweeted:

Our President Julian Burnside is reported in today’s Age expressing a view about the appropriate level of curtailment of human rights in response to COVID19. The comment was a reflection of Julian’s personal view, but didn’t precisely align with Liberty’s position on the matter.

Liberty got itself into further conniptions with later tweets as it no doubt dealt with internal ructions as it clarified and then reclarified its position.  It was a significant faux pas for Burnside to give such an endorsement of actions which are so problematical. Heads of civil liberty organisations have to be political but not aligned politically.  Burnside has been reported by his bete noire, Gerard Henderson as tweeting support for the Premier. The tweet is “Dan Andrews has done a great job…and I don’t even vote Labor.”  Those sort of tweets eat away into one’s credibility as a fighter for civil liberties. 

In the washup of this pandemic there really needs to be a review on how privacy of all have been respected, where over reach has occurred and why it happened.  A good hard look at the Victoria Police is needed.  The culture of Victoria Police was coarsening long before the pandemic.  The run of mini scandals have not prompted the political and governmental attention they deserved.  The use and abuse of Nicola Gobbo as an informant by by Victoria Police was an extraordinary abuse of trust and contempt of the legal process which is only matched by its arrogant and obstructive behaviour at the Lawyer X Royal Commission.   While Jon Faine’s  new iteration as a columnist has been generally disappointing with his pieces being generally a retread in a “man-of-the-people-ah-shucks-homespun” style of what has already been spouted ad nauseum or a sturdy defence of  big spending or social control and defending what works for baby boomers his piece Victoria Police must now have its ranks purged for a fresh start is on the money.  It probably does not go far enough.  

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