How do we counter COVID misinformation? Challenge it directly with the facts



Mary Altaffer/AP

Adam Dunn, University of Sydney

The government is rolling out a new public information campaign this week to reassure the public about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, which one expert has said “couldn’t be more crucial” to people actually getting the jabs when they are available.

Access to vaccines is the most important barrier to widespread immunisations, so this campaign should go a long way toward getting the right people vaccinated at the right time.

But it also comes as government ministers — and even the prime minister — have refused to address the COVID-19 misinformation coming from those within their own ranks.

Despite advice from the Therapeutic Goods Administration explaining that hydroxychloroquine is not an effective treatment for COVID-19, MP Craig Kelly has continued to promote the opposite on Facebook. A letter he wrote on the same topic, bearing the Commonwealth coat of arms was also widely distributed.

He has also incorrectly advocated the use of the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin as a treatment for COVID-19, and encouraged people to protest against what he called “health bureaucrats in an ivory tower”.

Compared to health experts, politicians and celebrities tend to have access to larger and more diverse audiences, particularly on social media. But politicians and celebrities may not always have the appraisal skills they need to assess clinical evidence.

I spend much of my time examining how researchers introduce biases into the design and reporting of trials and systematic reviews. Kelly probably has less experience in critically appraising trial design and reporting. But if he and I were competing for attention among Australians, his opinions would certainly reach a much larger and varied segment of the population.

Does misinformation really cause harm?

According to a recent Quantum Market Research survey of 1,000 people commissioned by the Department of Health, four in five respondents said they were likely to get a COVID-19 vaccine when it’s made available.

Australia generally has high levels of vaccine confidence compared to other wealthy countries – 72% strongly agree that vaccines are safe and less than 2% strongly disagree.

But there does appear to be some hesitancy about the COVID-19 vaccine. In the Quantum survey, 27% of respondents overall, and 42% of women in their 30s, had concerns about vaccine safety. According to the report, this showed

a need to dispel some specific fears held by certain cohorts of the community in relation to potential adverse side effects.

For other types of COVID misinformation, a University of Sydney study found that younger men had stronger agreement with misconceptions and myths, such as the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment, that 5G networks spread the virus or that the virus was engineered in a lab.

Surveys showing how attitudes and beliefs vary by demographics are useful, but it is difficult to know how exposure to misinformation affects the decisions people make about their health in the real world.




Read more:
Laws making social media firms expose major COVID myths could help Australia’s vaccine rollout


Studies measuring what happens to people’s behaviours after misinformation reaches a mainstream audience are rare. One study from 2015 looked at the effect of an ABC Catalyst episode that misrepresented evidence about cholesterol-lowering drugs — it found fewer people filled their statin prescriptions after the show.

When it comes to COVID-19, researchers are only starting to understand the influence of misinformation on people’s behaviours.

After public discussion about using bleach to potentially treat COVID-19, for instance, the number of internet searches about injecting and drinking disinfectants increased. This was followed by a spike in the number of calls to poison control phone lines for disinfectant-related injuries.

As vaccine roll-outs accelerate around the world, concern is growing about vaccine hesitancy among certain groups.
Peter Dejong/AP

Does countering misinformation online work?

The aim of countering misinformation is not to change the opinions of the people posting it, but to reduce misperceptions among the often silent audience. Public health organisations promoting the benefits of vaccinations on social media consider this when they decide to engage with anti-vaccine posts.

A study published this month by two American researchers, Emily Vraga and Leticia Bode, tested the effect of posting an infographic correction in response to misinformation about the science of a false COVID-19 prevention method. They found a bot developed with the World Health Organization and Facebook was able to reduce misperceptions by posting factual responses to misinformation when it appeared.




Read more:
Why is it so hard to stop COVID-19 misinformation spreading on social media?


A common concern about correcting misinformation in this way is that it might cause a backfire effect, leading people to become more entrenched in misinformed beliefs. But research shows the backfire effect appears to be much rarer than first thought.

Vraga and Bode found no evidence of a backfire effect in their study. Their results suggest that responding to COVID-19 misinformation with factual information is likely to do more good than harm.

So, what’s the best strategy?

Social media platforms can address COVID-19 misinformation by simply removing or labelling posts and deplatforming users who post it.

This is probably most effective in situations where the user posting the misinformation has a small audience. In these cases, responding to misinformation with facts in a more direct way may be a waste of time and could unintentionally amplify the post.

When misinformation is shared by people like Kelly who are in positions of power and influence, removing those posts is like cutting a head off a hydra. It doesn’t stop the spread of misinformation at the source and more of the same will likely fill the void left behind.




Read more:
Most government information on COVID-19 is too hard for the average Australian to understand


In these instances, governments and organisations should consider directly countering misinformation where it occurs. To do this effectively, they need to consider the size of the audience, respond to the misinformation and not the person, and present evidence in simple and engaging ways.

The government’s current campaign fills an important gap in providing simple and clear information about who should get vaccinated and how. It doesn’t directly address the misinformation problem, but I think this would be the wrong place for that kind of effort, anyway.

Instead, research suggests it might be better to directly challenge misinformation where it appears. Rather than demanding the deplatforming of the people who post misinformation, we might instead think of it as an opportunity to correct misperceptions in front of the audiences that really need it.The Conversation

Adam Dunn, Associate professor, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Most government information on COVID-19 is too hard for the average Australian to understand



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Cath Ferguson, Edith Cowan University; Margaret Kristin Merga, Edith Cowan University, and Stephen Winn, Edith Cowan University

Almost half of Australian adults struggle with reading. Similar levels of struggling readers are reported in the United Kingdom and United States.

This does not mean all struggling readers are illiterate. It means they often struggle to understand writing in a way required for broad participation in work, education and training, and society.

Our recent analysis of government information on COVID-19 found many documents were written in a way that is inaccessible to struggling readers.

If adults do not understand key health messages, they are unlikely to comply with health directives that can protect themselves and the rest of the population.

Difficulty with reading

There are many reasons adults can struggle with reading. They include English being their second language, having had long or many absences from school, home factors, student attitudes and engagement, school and systems factors, and learning difficulties and disabilities.

People who have difficulty reading information may miss out on key health messages about COVID-19.

This could lead to poor health outcomes for themselves and others. This is because many of the health messages, such as the importance of wearing a face mask and social distancing, require individual action for community benefit.




Read more:
We’re not all in this together. Messages about social distancing need the right cultural fit


We analysed the content of online government documents (federal and Western Australian) related to COVID-19 to determine how hard this information was to read. We chose government pages because we expect them to provide reliable information.

The website pages we selected clearly indicated they were for the general public — such as a page with the heading “information and advice on the COVID-19 coronavirus for the community and businesses in Western Australia”.

Women in supermarket wearing a facemask.
Many health messages, such as the importance of wearing a face mask and social distancing, require individual action for community benefit.
Shutterstock

To be accessible to the general population documents should have a reading ability requirement of year 8. This means the health messages governments share should be understandable for someone in year 8 or lower in Australia.

What we found

We used an online readability checker to analyse the documents we accessed.
Readability scores are based on the number of words in a sentence, the number of syllables in the words and the number of sentences in the document.

The documents we analysed had an average readability of grade 13, which is very difficult to read for many adults. The range of readability scores was from grade 8 to grade 26.

Only two of the 52 documents could be read with relative ease, as these were assessed at grade 8. But no document in the set we analysed was easy to read. An easy-to-read document would have had a score of grade 6.




Read more:
Young men are more likely to believe COVID-19 myths. So how do we actually reach them?


For example, here is a difficult sentence explaining what the public needs to know about moving from one phase of restrictions to another. It is from one of the government websites. The document from which it was taken scored at grade 24 (very difficult to read).

Phase 3 will be subject to health advice, but will focus on continuing to build stronger links within the community and include further resumption of commercial and recreational activities.

There are 29 words in the above sentence.

As you can see, it is quite a long sentence with a number of big words. Without losing its original meaning, the sentence can be simplified into 18 words.

Based on health advice, Phase 3 will include connecting with community, opening businesses and allowing some personal activities.

The words we used are more common and therefore more easy to understand. Words such as “resumption” may be too hard for many readers.

What does this mean?

Based on the sample of documents we assessed, it appears a lot of government-produced COVID-19 information is not easy to read. This means it is unlikely to be of much practical use.

Our findings suggest governments are failing to take into account that many adults struggle to read when they develop important online communications about the pandemic — and perhaps other health advice.




Read more:
Viral spiral: the federal government is playing a risky game with mixed messages on coronavirus


If those who create health messages don’t take into account that many adults struggle with reading, a large portion of the population misses out on information important for individual and public health.

We recommend readability checkers, now freely available on the internet, be used to check the grade level at which government documents are written.

Governments have a responsibility to share information so everyone can access it. They should not assume failure to comply with public health measures is always a choice. It’s possible the message simply hasn’t been received.The Conversation

Cath Ferguson, Academic, Edith Cowan University; Margaret Kristin Merga, Senior Lecturer in Education, Edith Cowan University, and Stephen Winn, Professor, Executive Dean, School of Education, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Call for clearer risk information for tourists following Whakaari/White Island tragedy



The Royal New Zealand Navy during a recovery operation on Whakaari/White Island, on December 13. Rescue and recovery efforts have been hampered by hazardous conditions on the island, and the danger of another eruption.
EPA/Royal NZ Navy, CC BY-ND

Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, University of South Australia and James Higham, University of Otago

In the aftermath of the tragedy at Whakaari/White Island on December 9, many are analysing the risks of adventure tourism, particularly volcano tourism, and asking pointed questions.

It is a sensitive time, with 15 people now confirmed dead, many hospitalised in critical condition, and two bodies yet to be retrieved from the disaster zone.

We question whether the tourists caught up in the events actually knew the risks they faced, and whether other tourist groups may be unaware of the potential risks that their travel decisions may carry.

Although geologists are monitoring Whakaari/White Island, some volcanic activity cannot be predicted.



Read more:
Why were tourists allowed on White Island?


Risk assessment and visitor safety

The websites for White Island Tours and the promotion pages on the Bay of Plenty website are currently not viewable. But the Trip Advisor site for Whakaari calls it “New Zealand’s most active volcano”. It mentions the need for gas masks and hard hats and describes conditions of a still active volcano, including steam vents and sulphurous fumes.

But it is doubtful that cruise ship passengers, such as those from the Ovation of the Seas, would have done such research. Cruises offer a variety of shore excursions when in port, ranging from passive sightseeing to adventure activities.

Many tourists will assume endorsed excursions have been properly vetted by their cruise company and assume there is negligible risk to personal safety. But this may not be the case.

Major cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean visit multiple destinations with very different regulatory environments. The assumption that shore excursions will be safe may be misplaced, both by the cruise line and the visitors they book on such excursions. This is now clear from the events at Whakaari but also in previous incidents, such as last year’s fatal bus crash in Mexico.

Local supporters gather on the quayside as a boat that carried families for a morning blessing at White Island returns during a recovery operation to retrieve the remaining bodies.
AAP/David Rowland, CC BY-ND

Adventure capital

New Zealand is known as an adventure tourism destination, but its regulatory systems have undergone recent change. After 37 deaths over four years, then prime minister John Key ordered an urgent safety audit in 2009.

This resulted in a shift, from 2013, from a voluntary system under Outdoors New Zealand and the regulatory system under Worksafe NZ to the New Zealand adventure activity certification scheme. Some tour operators have found this audit system too onerous. Striking the right balance between risk management while allowing the adventure tourism sector to thrive has proved difficult.

But the case of Whakaari/White Island is unique in many ways. The island is privately owned. GeoNet monitors volcanic activity and rates the threat level. The tour companies then assess the risk and determine if visits can proceed or should be temporarily suspended.

Three companies have operated tours to Whakaari/White Island, including the Māori-owned White Island Tours (owned by Ngāti Awa). The other two are helicopter companies Kahu and Volcanic Air Safaris. White Island Tours was accredited under AdventureMark, which is a Worksafe NZ approved certification body.

We must await the Worksafe investigation to know whether it was reasonable to allow the tours to go ahead when volcanic risk rating had risen from level 1 to level 2. We also still await the full human toll, knowing that recovery for survivors may take years. It is also clear that the impact on Ngāti Awa and the Whakatāne community has been profound.

Inherent risk in active environments

In laying out these complexities in which small private tour companies and large internationally owned cruise ships took thousands of visitors to Whakaari each year, we underscore how difficult an assessment of risk might be for some visitors.

Adventure tourists typically make an assessment weighing up risks against the thrills they seek to achieve. New Zealand’s reputation for adventure tourism is built in part on well developed policy settings and regulatory regimes, and an expectation among visitors of high adventure safety standards.

Risk – both perceived and actual – is carefully managed to ensure that perceived risk is high but actual risk is as low as humanly possible. The reputation of the sector and, indeed, the interests of the wider New Zealand tourism industry hinge on high safety standards. For example, bungy jumping appears to be very high risk, but its commercial viability comes from the highly controlled operation, which means actual risk is in fact very low.

Set against this are longstanding activities that take visitors into spectacular settings to experience firsthand the wonders of nature. Such environments do present inherent risk even if many decades may pass between natural events.

The Pink and White Terraces – the largest silica sinter deposit on earth – were a spectacular visitor attraction in the mid-19th century, and the centrepiece of Māori tourism development. That was until they were completely destroyed by the eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886.

New Zealand’s most stunning natural vistas – Aoraki/Mount Cook, the fjords of Te Wahipounamu world heritage area, towering glaciers and raging rivers – are the result of millions of years of seismic activity on the Pacific and Australian tectonic plate boundary. These environments are dynamic and, at times, very destructive.

These settings contrast adventure tourism activities. Risk may be perceived as low or non-existent given that these environments may be largely inactive for years.




Read more:
Why White Island erupted and why there was no warning


Informed consent

In a complex international environment, the ultimate decision to participate in activities in dynamic and potentially destructive environments rests with the visitors.

Ultimately, visitor welfare depends on informed visitor choice. This case highlights the need for consent forms to be signed in many more cases, beyond those already used in adventure tourism and medical tourism.

Such documents should make clear the nature of the possible risks. Elevated risk levels on the day of the visit as well as changing risk levels in the days prior to the scheduled visit should be clearly communicated. Participation should only proceed after informed consent is secured.

Such an approach does not obviate the need for accreditation, audits, regulations and strict oversight by relevant authorities. But it does ensure that tourists play their part in deciding what risks are worth taking on their holidays.

We cannot undo the events that unfolded at Whakaari/ White Island, but we can honour lives lost by making absolutely sure that we learn from this tragedy.The Conversation

Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, Senior Lecturer in Tourism Management, University of South Australia and James Higham, Professor of Tourism, University of Otago

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

My Health Record: Deleting personal information from databases is harder than it sounds



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Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has announced that the My Health Record system will be modified to allow the permanent deletion of records.
Shutterstock

Robert Merkel, Monash University

Since the period for opting out of My Health Record began on July 16, experts in health, privacy and IT have raised concerns about the security and privacy protections of the system, and the legislation governing its operation.

Now federal health minister Greg Hunt has announced two key changes to the system.

First, the legislation will be amended to explicitly require a court order for any documents to be released to a law enforcement agency. Second, the system will be modified to allow the permanent deletion of records:

In addition, the Government will also amend Labor’s 2012 legislation to ensure if someone wishes to cancel their record they will be able to do so permanently, with their record deleted from the system.

But while this sounds like a simple change, permanently and completely deleting information from IT systems is anything but straightforward.




Read more:
My Health Record: the case for opting out


Systems designed for retention, not deletion

The My Health Record database is designed for the long-term retention of important information. Most IT systems designed for this purpose are underpinned by the assumption that the risk of losing information – through a hardware fault, programming mistake, or operator error – should be extremely low.

The exact details of how My Health Record data is protected from data loss are not public. But there are several common measures that systems like it incorporate to greatly reduce the risks.

At a most basic level, “deletion” of a record stored in a database is often implemented simply by marking a record as deleted. That’s akin to deleting something on paper by drawing a thin line through it.

The software can be programmed to ignore any such deleted records, but the underlying record is still present in the database – and can be retrieved by an administrator with unfettered permissions to access the database directly.

This approach means that if an operator error or software bug results in an incorrect deletion, repairing the damage is straightforward.




Read more:
My Health Record: the case for opting in


Furthermore, even if data is actually deleted from the active database, it can still be present in backup “snapshots” that contain the complete database contents at some particular moment in time.

Some of these backups will be retained – untouched and unaltered – for extended periods, and will only be accessible to a small group of IT administrators.

Zombie records

Permanent and absolute deletion of a record in such a system will therefore be a challenge.

If a user requests deletion, removing their record from the active database will be relatively straightforward (although even this has some complications), but removing them from the backups is not.

If the backups are left unaltered, we might wonder in what circumstances the information in those backups would be made accessible.

If, by contrast, the archival backups are actively and irrevocably modified to permit deletion, those archival backups are at high risk of other modifications that remove or modify wanted data. This would defeat the purpose of having trusted archival backups.

Backups and the GDPR’s ‘right to be forgotten’

The problem of deleting personal information and archival backups has been raised in the context of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This new EU-wide law greatly strengthens privacy protections surrounding use of personal information in member states.

The “right to erasure” or “right to be forgotten” – Article 17 of the GDPR – states that organisations storing the personal information of EU citizens “shall have the obligation to erase personal data without undue delay” in certain circumstances.

How this obligation will be met in the context of standard data backup practices is an interesting question, to say the least. While the legal aspects of this question are beyond my expertise, from a technical perspective, there is no easy general-purpose solution for the prompt deletion of individual records from archived data.

In an essay posted to their corporate website, data backup company Acronis proposes that companies should be transparent about what will happen to the backups of customers who request that records be deleted:

[while] primary instances of their data in production systems will be erased with all due speed … their personal data may reside in backup archives that must be retained for a longer period of time – either because it is impractical to isolate individual personal data within the archive, or because the controller is required to retain data longer for contractual, legal or compliance reasons.

Who might access those backups?

Data stored on archival backups, competently administered, will not be available to health professionals. Nor will they be available to run-of-the-mill hackers who might steal a practitioner’s credentials to gain illicit access to My Health Record.

But it’s not at all clear whether law enforcement bodies, or anyone else, could potentially access a deleted record if they are granted access to archival backups by the system operator.

Under amended legislation, such access would undoubtedly require a court order. Nevertheless, were it to be permitted, access to a deleted record under these circumstances would be contrary to the general expectation that when a record is deleted, it is promptly, completely and irrevocably deleted, with no prospect of retrieval.




Read more:
Opting out of My Health Records? Here’s what you get with the status quo


Time required to work through the details

In my view, more information on the deletion process, and any legislative provisions surrounding deleted records, needs to be made public. This will allow individuals to make an informed choice on whether they are comfortable with the amended security and privacy provisions.

Getting this right will take time and extensive expert and public consultation. It is very difficult to imagine how this could take place within the opt-out period, even taking into account the one-month extension just announced by the minister.

The ConversationGiven that, it would be prudent to pause the roll-out of My Health Record for a considerably longer period. This would permit the government to properly address the issues of record deletion, as well as the numerous other privacy and security concerns raised about the system.

Robert Merkel, Lecturer in Software Engineering, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How information warfare in cyberspace threatens our freedom



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Information warfare in cyberspace could replace reason and reality with rage and fantasy.
Shutterstock

Roger Bradbury, Australian National University; Anne-Marie Grisogono, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Dmitry Brizhinev, Australian National University; John Finnigan, CSIRO, and Nicholas Lyall, Australian National University

This article is the fourth in a five-part series exploring Australian national security in the digital age. Read parts one, two and three here.


Just as we’ve become used to the idea of cyber warfare, along come the attacks, via social media, on our polity.

We’ve watched in growing amazement at the brazen efforts by the Russian state to influence the US elections, the UK’s Brexit referendum and other democratic targets. And we’ve tended to conflate them with the seemingly-endless cyber hacks and attacks on our businesses, governments, infrastructure, and a long-suffering citizenry.

But these social media attacks are a different beast altogether – more sinister, more consequential and far more difficult to counter. They are the modern realisation of the Marxist-Leninist idea that information is a weapon in the struggle against Western democracies, and that the war is ongoing. There is no peacetime or wartime, there are no non-combatants. Indeed, the citizenry are the main targets.

A new battlespace for an old war

These subversive attacks on us are not a prelude to war, they are the war itself; what Cold War strategist George Kennan called “political warfare”.

Perversely, as US cyber experts Herb Lin and Jaclyn Kerr note, modern communication attacks exploit the technical virtues of the internet such as “high connectivity” and “democratised access to publishing capabilities”. What the attackers do is, broadly speaking, not illegal.

The battlespace for this warfare is not the physical, but the cognitive environment – within our brains. It seeks to sow confusion and discord, to reduce our abilities to think and reason rationally.

Social media platforms are the perfect theatres in which to wage political warfare. Their vast reach, high tempo, anonymity, directness and cheap production costs mean that political messages can be distributed quickly, cheaply and anonymously. They can also be tailored to target audiences and amplified quickly to drown out adversary messages.

Simulating dissimulation

We built simulation models (for a forthcoming publication) to test these ideas. We were astonished at how effectively this new cyber warfare can wreak havoc in the models, co-opting filter bubbles and preventing the emergence of democratic discourse.

We used agent-based models to examine how opinions shift in response to the insertion of strong opinions (fake news or propaganda) into the discourse.

Our agents in these simple models were individuals who each had a set of opinions. We represented different opinions as axes in an opinion space. Individuals are located in the space by the values of their opinions. Individuals close to each other in the opinion space are close to each other in their opinions. Their differences in opinion are simply the distance between them.

When an individual links to a neighbour, they experience a degree of convergence – their opinions are drawn towards each other. An individual’s position is not fixed, but may shift under the influence of the opinions of others.

The dynamics in these models were driven by two conflicting processes:

  • Individuals are social – they have a need to communicate – and they will seek to communicate with others with whom they agree. That is, other individuals nearby in their opinion space.

  • Individuals have a limited number of communication links they can manage at any time (also known as their Dunbar number, and they continue to find links until they satisfy this number. Individuals, therefore, are sometimes forced to communicate with individuals with whom they disagree in order to satisfy their Dunbar number. But if they wish to create a new link and have already reached their Dunbar number, they will prune another link.

Figure 1: The emergence of filter bubbles

Figure 1: Filter bubbles emerging with two dimensions, opinions of issue X and opinions of issue Y.
roger.bradbury@anu.edu.au

To begin, 100 individuals, represented as dots, were randomly distributed across the space with no links. At each step, every individual attempts to link with a near neighbour up to its Dunbar number, perhaps breaking earlier links to do so. In doing so, it may change its position in opinion space.

Over time, individuals draw together into like-minded groups (filter bubbles). But the bubbles are dynamic. They form and dissolve as individuals continue to prune old links and seek newer, closer ones as a result of their shifting positions in the opinion space. Figure 1, above, shows the state of the bubbles in one experiment after 25 steps.

Figure 2: Capturing filter bubbles with fake news

Conversation lobbies figure 2.
roger.bradbury@anu.edu.au

At time step 26, we introduced two pieces of fake news into the model. These were represented as special sorts of individuals that had an opinion in only one dimension of the opinion space and no opinion at all in the other. Further, these “individuals” didn’t seek to connect to other individuals and they never shifted their opinion as a result of ordinary individuals linking to them. They are represented by the two green lines in Figure 2.

Over time (the figure shows time step 100), each piece of fake news breaks down the old filter bubbles and reels individuals towards their green line. They create new tighter filter bubbles that are very stable over time.

Information warfare is a threat to our Enlightenment foundations

These are the conventional tools of demagogues throughout history, but this agitprop is now packaged in ways perfectly suited to the new environment. Projected against the West, this material seeks to increase political polarisation in our public sphere.

Rather than actually change an election outcome, it seeks to prevent the creation of any coherent worldview. It encourages the creation of filter bubbles in society where emotion is privileged over reason and targets are immunised against real information and rational consideration.

These models confirm Lin and Kerr’s hypothesis. “Traditional” cyber warfare is not an existential threat to Western civilisation. We can and have rebuilt our societies after kinetic attacks. But information warfare in cyberspace is such a threat.

The ConversationThe Enlightenment gave us reason and reality as the foundations of political discourse, but information warfare in cyberspace could replace reason and reality with rage and fantasy. We don’t know how to deal with this yet.

Roger Bradbury, Professor, National Security College, Australian National University; Anne-Marie Grisogono, Visiting fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Dmitry Brizhinev, Research Assistant, National Security College, Australian National University; John Finnigan, Leader, Complex Systems Science, CSIRO, and Nicholas Lyall, Research Assistant (National Security College), Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How the law allows governments to publish your private information



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Controversy has recently surrounded Centrelink and its handling of ‘overpayments’ and personal information.
AAP/Dave Hunt

Bruce Baer Arnold, University of Canberra

Recent controversy over the government’s use of information provided to Human Services and Veterans’ Affairs demonstrates there are major holes in Australia’s privacy regime that we need to fix. The Conversation

Australians are accustomed to providing personal information to federal and state governments. We do it repeatedly throughout our lives. We do so to claim entitlements. We also do so as the basis of public administration – the contemporary “information state”.

In making that state possible we trust we will not be treated as a file number or an incident. We will not be doxed.

A key aspect of that trust, consistent with international rights law since the 1940s, is that our privacy will be protected. We assume officials – and private sector entities they use as their agents – will not be negligent in safeguarding personal information.

We also assume they will not share personal information with other agencies unless there is a substantive need for that sharing – for example, for national security or to prevent harm to an individual. And we expect they will not disclose personal information to the media or directly to the community at large as a way of silencing criticism or resolving disputes.

Australia has a sophisticated body of administrative law and ombudsmen. So, there is no need for public shaming of people who disagree with ministers, officials or databases.

The complicated and inconsistent body of privacy law highlighted by law reform commissions over the past two decades attempts to provide legal protection for personal information. It is overseen by under-resourced watchdogs that – amid threats of termination – are inclined to lick the ministerial hand that feeds them.

That law has major weaknesses, illustrated by the Centrelink controversy and the furore over the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Digital Readiness and Other Measures) Bill. The Commonwealth is able to ignore ostensible protections under the Privacy Act and other statutes. That is quite lawful. It has been so for many years, evident in the watchdog’s finding in L v Commonwealth Agency.

The watchdog’s guidelines state that where someone:

… makes adverse comments in the media about the way [a body] has treated them … it may be reasonable to expect that the entity may respond publicly to these comments in a way that reveals personal information specifically relevant to the issues that the individual has raised.

Put simply, if you complain publicly about a Commonwealth agency that holds personal information relating to you, that agency can lawfully give the information to the media or publish it directly. It can do so to correct what the minister deems to be “misinformation”.

There is no requirement that your complaint be malicious, fraudulent, vexatious or otherwise wrong. Disclosure is at the minister’s discretion, not subject to independent review. You have no legal remedies unless it could be proved that the official was malicious or corrupt.

We have seen such a disclosure. The Department of Human Services gave personal information to a journalist for publication about a person who disagreed with action by Centrelink to recover an alleged overpayment of an entitlement.

There has been much discussion in the media and the national parliament about the vigour with which the government is seeking to recover overpayments. Worryingly, it remains uncertain whether many of the alleged overpayments actually exist.

Ongoing changes to entitlements policy, the hollowing out of key agencies by the annual “efficiency dividend” (that is, ongoing cuts to budgets) and problematical design and management of very large information technology projects mean overpayments might not have occurred.

Public disclosure of someone’s personal information thus looks very much like bullying, if not a deliberate effort to chill legitimate criticism and discussion of publicly funded programs.

The veterans’ affairs minister and the shadow minister have apparently not done their homework. The new Digital Readiness Bill – passed in the House of Representatives but not in the Senate – allows the minister to publicly disclose medical and other personal information about veterans. The rationale for that disclosure is to correct misinformation.

Understandably, veterans are unhappy. Legal practitioners and academics wonder about the scope for public shaming through release of department information that might not be correct.

The national Privacy Commissioner has been complacent. Labor’s veterans’ affairs spokeswoman, Amanda Rishworth, has belatedly expressed concern. The minister has simply referred to the establishment of an independent review by the Australian Government Solicitor and his department. It is difficult to understand why privacy wasn’t properly considered before the bill went into parliament.

There are too many loopholes in Australia’s privacy regime. Government agencies also need to toughen up in the face of criticism – legitimate or otherwise – and not respond by bullying people through publication of personal information.

Bruce Baer Arnold, Assistant Professor, School of Law, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Facebook: Email Outrage


  1. Facebook just doesn’t learn. If there’s something that Facebook should know by now it’s that the social network’s users don’t like things being forced upon them and having their settings changed without notification and permission. Yet despite this, Facebook has done it again and changed everyone’s default email setting to that of a Facebook email address. Poor form Facebook, poor form. It really annoyed me to find it so today, but thankfully I have processes in place that should warn be of such Facebook ineptness before too much harm is done. Not so for all, so hopefully this story will bring awareness to others, as well as providing information as to how it can be corrected.

Wikileaks Founder Julian Assange Seeks Asylum in Ecuador


  1. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is seeking political asylum in Ecuador, claiming that the US is seeking to have him sent there for trial with the death penalty to be sought and that the Australian government has abandoned him. However, the Australian government has said that it has no evidence or information that the US is seeking to have him sent there and that assistance given to Assange has been on a comparative level with that given to others.

India Briefs


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Karnataka, India, April 15 (CDN) — Police on April 10 arrested a pastor and other Christians of the New India Church in Mysore after some 25 Hindu extremists from the Sreeram Sena attacked their Sunday service, accusing them of forcible conversions, reported the Mathrubhumi daily. Pastor Vinod Chacko was leading the service when the Hindu nationalists barged into the church, stopped the prayer service and complained to police of alleged forcible conversions. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the extremists along with police detained the worshippers inside the church building, including 20 women and 10 children, taking down personal details about them and asking them whether they were paid money or otherwise lured to attend. Police also seized vehicles belonging to the church and those attending the service. Police charged Pastor Chacko, his wife Asha and others identified only as Sabu, Simon and Sayazu under section 295A of the Indian Penal Code with “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings.”

New Delhi – A mob of about 150 Hindu extremists on April 9 attacked a Christian worship meeting in Bhajanpura, East Delhi, beating Christians with clubs and stones, including women and children. Pastor Solomon King told Compass that the Assembly of God church organized an open-air “Festival of Deliverance” meeting at which he was speaking; there were about 150 people in the arena when he arrived with 40 choir members. After the meeting began at about 6 p.m., some present suddenly shouted “Jai Shri Ram [Praise Lord Ram]” and started beating the Christians. Two Christians identified only as Prabhu and Abhisek sustained head injuries and received hospital treatment. Pastor King, his wife and other Christians also suffered bruises. The intolerant Hindus also destroyed furniture, a sound system, a generator and some Christians’ vehicle. The Christians had received permission from government officials to conduct the worship meeting, and five police officers were on duty to protect it; the Hindu extremists also severely beat them. The attack lasted for about an hour before police reinforcements arrived, and the extremists fled. Police were able to arrest two of the assailants.

Madhya Pradesh – An enraged mob of Hindu extremists on April 7 stormed into the prayer meeting of a Christian Assembly house church shouting anti-Christian slogans and filed a police complaint of forceful conversion against those present in Sagar. The Hindu extremists accused Pastor Joy Thomas Philip of forceful conversion, Pastor C.P. Mathew of Bhopal told Compass. Police arrived and took Pastor Philip and three other Christians into custody for questioning but claimed it was a protective measure. After area Christian leaders’ intervention, the Christians were released on bail on April 9.

Karnataka – Mulki Circle police officials on April 4 forcibly took church documents from Hebron Assembly Church in Mulki and told the pastor not to allow any Hindus to enter. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that officials identified only as Inspector Shivaprakash and Sub-Inspector Neelakanta, along with five police officers, verbally abused Pastor I.D. Prasanna and harshly denigrated church activities. Police officials questioned Pastor Prasanna for three hours, telling him what church activities he can and cannot undertake, and threatening to close the church if he disobeyed. They also ordered the pastor to give detailed information about the families that attended the church service.

Karnataka – Police in Shimago on April 3 detained Pastor Abraham K.G. and a Christian identified only as Eerappa for their faith in Christ. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that Hindu extremists led by area Bajrang Dal member Subbraya Shetty interrupted the worship meeting of the Jehovah Nizzi church and warned them to stop meeting. The extremists had been harassing the pastor since March 27, reported the GCIC. As the April 3 service started at about 10:30 a.m., a sub-inspector from the Hosanagara police station arrived in a Jeep with three other police officers to make the arrests. When the Christians asked about the reasons, the officials said without basis that the Christians were using abusive language. Later that evening, police released the Christians without charges after taking a statement from them pledging that they would conduct no future worship meetings – and that they should leave the area.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org