Australia will commit a frigate, an aircraft and some headquarters staff to an American-led freedom of navigation operation in the Middle East.
Scott Morrison, announcing the long-expected commitment at a Canberra news conference on Wednesday, stressed this was an international mission, but so far the United Kingdom is the only other country to have signed up.
Under questioning, the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, said the operation would be United States-led. But Campbell avoided spelling out in detail the rules of engagement in the event of being involved in an incident, other than referring to legal obligations.
Iran has seized ships in recent months, amid escalating tensions.
This week, an Iranian oil tanker was released after being detained by the British overseas territory of Gibraltar on suspicion of taking oil to Syria. The US tried unsuccessfully to have Gibraltar extend the vessel’s detention.
Morrison said Australia had made very clear both to the US and the UK “that we are here as part of a multinational effort”.
“This is a modest, meaningful and time-limited contribution …to this international effort to ensure we maintain free-flow of commerce and of navigation,” he said.
“Australia will defend our interests, wherever they may be under threat, we will always work closely with our international allies and partners.”
Morrison emphasised that the safety of shipping lanes was vital to Australia’s economic interests.
The government had been concerned over incidents in the Strait of Hormuz, he said. “30% of refined oil destined for Australia travels through the Strait. It is a threat to our economy.”
The Australian contribution will be
a P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft for one month before the end of 2019;
an Australian frigate in January 2020 for six months; and
ADF personnel to the International Maritime Security Construct headquarters in Bahrain.
One complication for Australia in finalising the commitment was the fact there was no Australian frigate in the area, with the next deployment not due until January.
Australian ships participate in counter-piracy and counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East.
The Americans were very pressing in their request to Australia to join the force, including in public statements during the recent AUSMIN talks.
Morrison has emphasised Australia wants to see the de-escalation of tensions in the area and separates its commitment to the freedom of navigation operation from America’s other activities in relation to Iran.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has indicated Australia will join a multinational peacekeeping force to protect freedom of navigation in the Gulf, but at this stage he has not indicated what form Australian participation might take.
Speaking to reporters after a conversation overnight with newly-installed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Morrison said Australia was “looking very carefully at an international, multinational initiative” to provide a peacekeeping role.
But given recent experience of Australia too hastily joining an American-led Iraq invasion of 2003, with disastrous consequences, Morrison and his advisers need to ask some hard questions – and set clear limits on any Australian involvement.
It is not clear the extent to which the prime minister and his team have interrogated the risks involved before acceding to an American request for some form of military contribution to policing one of the world’s most strategically important waterways.
Options include sending a warship or warships to join peacekeeping patrols under American command, or stationing surveillance aircraft in the region to monitor ship movements through the Strait of Hormuz.
The operative words in the above paragraph are “American command”.
Any peacekeeping mission might be presented as a multinational exercise, but in effect the preponderance of American power, including an aircraft carrier battle group, means Americans would be in command.
In the Iraq invasion of 2003, Australians operated under broad American oversight, as did the British at considerable cost to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s reputation.
This is not an argument against Australian involvement in protecting a vital sea lane through which passes one-third of the world’s seaborne tradeable oil every day. Rather, it is to make the case for extreme caution.
Morrison and his team need to ask themselves whether there is a risk of being drawn into an American exercise in regime change in Iran. What might be the limits on Australia’s involvement should hostilities broke out in the Gulf?
What would be the rules of engagement? What might be an exit strategy?
What, for example, would be Australia’s response if a warship involved in a peacekeeping exercise was damaged – or sunk – in a hostile act? This includes hitting a mine bobbing in the Gulf waterway, or a limpet mine stuck on the side of a vessel.
What would Australia’s response be in the case of a surveillance aircraft or drone being shot down if it strayed into Iranian airspace?
In other words, there are multiple possibilities of conflict escalating given the concentration of firepower that is planned for the Gulf.
The aim of any international mission to which Australia attaches itself should be to de-escalate tensions in the world’s most volatile region. A military presence cannot – and should not – be detached from a political imperative.
That imperative is to draw Iran back into discussions on a revitalised Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Under this 2015 plan, the Iranians agreed to freeze their nuclear program under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision.
Iran was complying with that agreement before US President Donald Trump recklessly abrogated it in 2018 and re-applied sanctions. These have brought Iran’s economy to its knees.
Trump’s abandonment of the JCPOA against the wishes of the other signatories, including the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, was as inexplicable as it was damaging.
Now, the world is facing a crisis in the Gulf of American making, and one that Washington is asking its allies to police.
Morrison has been equivocal about the JCPOA. He would be well advised to reiterate Australia’s backing for the agreement as a signal to the Americans that Australia stands with its allies in its support of international obligations.
These cannot – and should not – be ripped up at the whim of a president who seems to have been motivated largely by a desire to undo the useful work of his predecessor.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this has been an act of self-harm to American interests and those of its allies. It is a crisis that need not have occurred.
Viewed from the distance of Canberra, Morrison and his advisers might have difficulty fully comprehending the risks involved in a potential escalation of tensions in the Gulf.
In a useful paper, the International Crisis Group warns of the dangers of an escalation of hostilities due to a mistake or accident in a highly charged environment.
As Iran Project Director Ali Vaez puts it:
Just as in Europe in 1914 a single incident has the potential of sparking a military confrontation that could, in turn, engulf the entire region.
What should be kept in mind in all of this is that it is not simply stresses in the Gulf itself that are threatening stability, but a host of other Middle East flashpoints. These include ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and heightened tensions between Iran and a Sunni majority led by Saudi Arabia.
Then there is the drumbeat on Capitol Hill. Hawkish Republican lawmakers agitate for pre-emptive strikes against Iran in the mistaken belief such an exercise would be clinical and short-lived.
Further destabilisation of the entire region would result, and possibly all-out war.
The ICG is urging America to redouble its efforts to establish a dialogue with Iran to bring about a resumption of negotiations on a revised JCPOA. This would require Washington making a down payment in good faith by easing sanctions on Iran’s oil exports.
It is not clear the Trump administration would be willing or able to make these concessions.
Morrison could do worse than argue the case for “redo” of the JCPOA when he is in Washington next month on a state visit.
Scott Morrison has flagged the government is working with the United States and Britain on details for an Australian role in helping safeguard shipping passages in the Middle East.
Morrison told a news conference in Townsville on Thursday he had spoken to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday night and “indicated to him that we were looking very carefully at our participation in this initiative”.
Morrison stressed it would be a multinational operation.
This is not a unilateral initiative by any one country, and it is about safe shipping lanes, it is about deescalating tensions and making sure that the current situation does not worsen.
He said the government had not “made any decisions on this yet. We want to be fully satisfied about the operational arrangements that are in place”. It was very early days and it would be a while before things came together.
In practice though, the government has obviously agreed in principle, subject to satisfactory arrangements being worked out. Its role is somewhat complicated, however, by the fact it does not have a ship in the region.
The US’s request for Australian assistance was discussed at the weekend AUSMIN talks.
Morrison said there were other countries which were in a similar position to Australia – “engaging before making any full decisions”.
He stressed the maritime issue “should be clearly divorced from the broader issues that relate to Iran and the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the nuclear deal that the US pulled out of last year].
“That’s a separate issue. This is about safe shipping lanes and ensuring that we can restore at least some stability to what is a very unstable part of the world at the moment,” Morrison said.
“There has been a very disturbing series of events that we’ve seen in the Straits of Hormuz, and freedom of navigation and safe shipping lanes is very important to the global economy and that is a matter that is as important in that part of the world as it is in many other parts of the world.”
China hits back at Liberal chair of security committee
The Chinese authorities have accused Liberal MP Andrew Hastie of “Cold-War mentality and ideological bias”, after he drew on the example of France’s “catastrophic” failure to comprehend the threat of a rising Nazi Germany in an article warning about the dangers from a rising China.
The West once believed that economic liberalisation would naturally lead to democratisation in China. This was our Maginot Line. It would keep us safe, just as the French believed their series of steel and concrete forts would guard them against the German advance in 1940. But their thinking failed catastrophically. The French had failed to appreciate the evolution of mobile warfare. Like the French, Australia has failed to see how mobile our authoritarian neighbour has become.
Even worse, we ignore the role that ideology plays in China’s actions across the Indo-Pacific region. We keep using our own categories to understand its actions, such as its motivations for building ports and roads, rather than those used by the Chinese Communist Party.
The West has made this mistake before. Commentators once believed Stalin’s decisions were the rational actions of a realist great power.
Hastie referred to action Australia had taken such as foreign espionage legislation and more closely monitoring infrastructure.
But “right now our greatest vulnerability lies not in our infrastructure, but in our thinking. That intellectual failure makes us institutionally weak. If we don’t understand the challenge ahead for our civil society, in our parliaments, in our universities, in our private enterprises, in our charities — our little platoons — then choices will be made for us. Our sovereignty, our freedoms, will be diminished.”
A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy said in a statement:
We strongly deplore the Australian federal MP Andrew Hastie’s rhetoric on “China threat” which lays bare his Cold-War mentality and ideological bias. It goes against the world trend of peace, cooperation and development. It is detrimental to China-Australian relations.
History has proven and will continue to prove that China’s peaceful development is an opportunity, not a threat to the world.
We urge certain Australian politicians to take off their “colored lens” and view China’s development path in an objective and rational way. They should make efforts to promote mutual trust between China and Australia, instead of doing the opposite.
Morrison played down the Hastie comments, noting he was a backbencher not a minister.
We will continue to work to have a cooperative arrangement with China. Of course, there is much to be gained from that relationship, particularly from the trade side, but let’s not forget that relationship is far broader than just the economic one.
But equally, our relationship with the United States is a very special one indeed and there is a deep connection on values and that’s of no surprise to anyone.
So we believe we can continue to manage these relationships together, but I don’t think anyone is in any way unaware of the challenges that present there.
The federal government is expected soon to approve a commitment in response to the United States’ request for allies to help protect shipping as tensions with Iran remain high.
Speaking at a joint news conference after the AUSMIN talks, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds on Sunday said the government was giving the request “very serious consideration”.
Although Reynolds said no decision had yet been made, it would be highly unlikely the request would not receive a favourable answer.
Meanwhile, on Sunday it was reported that Iran state TV said the country’s naval forces had seized another foreign tanker and that seven sailors had been detained. The Iranians said the vessel, carrying 700,000 litres of fuel, was smuggling the fuel to Persian Gulf Arab states.
It is not clear what form Australian assistance would take.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously said, when talking about a possible request, “it’s not unheard of to have Australian frigates in that part of the world engaged in maritime operations”.
However Australia does not currently have a ship in the region. An alternative would be to help with aircraft.
Reynolds said the Australian government’s position was very clear.
“We are deeply concerned by the heightened tensions in the region and we strongly condemn the attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Oman,” she said.
“The request that the United States has made is a very serious one and it is a very complex one. That’s why we are currently giving this request very serious consideration.”
US secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the news conference that the US had been very clear that the purpose of the proposed operations had been twofold.
“First of all, to promote the principle of freedom of navigation and freedom of commence through all waterways.
“Number two, is to prevent any provocative actions by Iran that might lead to some misunderstanding or miscalculation that could lead to a conflict.
“When we first advanced this idea several weeks ago, we had good response from some of our allies and partners. We continue to develop that idea,” he said.
The AUSMIN talks were attended by Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Reynolds, Pompeo and US Defence Secretary Mark Esper.
Esper also met Morrison on Sunday afternoon and Morrison had Pompeo to dinner on Sunday night.
The term herd immunity comes from the observation of how a herd of buffalo forms a circle, with the strong on the outside protecting the weaker and more vulnerable on the inside.
This is similar to how herd immunity works in preventing the spread of infectious diseases. Those who are strong enough to get vaccinated directly protect themselves from infection. They also indirectly shield vulnerable people who cannot be vaccinated.
There are various reasons a person may not be able to be successfully vaccinated. People undergoing cancer treatment, and whose immune systems are compromised, for instance, are impaired in their ability to develop protective immunity from all vaccines. Often, people who can’t be vaccinated are susceptible to the most serious consequences from being infected.
Another vulnerable group are babies. Infants under six months of age are susceptible to serious complications from influenza. Yet they can’t be given the flu vaccine as their immune systems are not strong enough.
For a contagious disease to spread, an infectious agent needs to find susceptible (non-immune) people to infect. If it can’t, the chain of infection is interrupted and the amount of disease in the population reduces.
Another way of thinking about it is that the disease needs susceptible victims to survive in the population. Without these, it effectively starves and dies out.
What level of coverage provides herd immunity?
How many people need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity varies from disease to disease.
Measles can be transmitted through coughing and sneezing and the virus causing measles can survive outside the body for up to two hours. So it’s possible to catch measles just by being in the same room as someone who is ill if you touch a surface they’ve coughed or sneezed on.
In contrast, Ebola can only be spread by direct contact with infected secretions (blood, faeces or vomit) and therefore requires close contact with an ill person. This makes it much less spreadable.
We can determine how contagious a disease is by tracking its spread throughout a population. In doing so, we can attribute each disease a reproductive number denoted by the symbol Ro. The bigger the Ro the more easily the disease is spread throughout the population.
If everyone who has a disease on average infects two people, the Ro for that disease is 2. This means the disease, relatively speaking, is not particularly contagious. However, if everyone who has a disease infects ten people on average, it would have an Ro of 10, which means it’s a much more contagious disease.
We can use the Ro for a disease to calculate the herd immunity threshold, which is the minimum percentage of people in the population that would need to be vaccinated to ensure a disease does not persist in the population. The more contagious a disease, the higher the threshold.
Measles is one of the most infectious diseases to affect humans with an Ro of 12-18. To achieve herd immunity to measles in a population we need 92-95% of the population to be vaccinated.
Current data indicates full vaccine coverage for five year olds in Australia is sitting at around the 95% level. However, vaccination rates in some communities have fallen below ideal levels, making them susceptible to measles outbreaks.
The overwhelming success of measles vaccinations means many people have no memory of what this disease looks like, and this has resulted in its effects being underestimated. Measles can cause blindness and acute encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), which can result in permanent brain damage.
Herd immunity, or community immunity, as it’s sometimes called, is a powerful public health tool. By ensuring those who can be vaccinated do get vaccinated we can achieve herd immunity and prevent the illness and suffering that comes from the spread of infectious diseases.
A few days ago, Waleed Aly asked a not-so-rhetorical question in The Sydney Morning Herald. He wondered how many Australians were worried about the fact that the Australian Federal Police had spent a good portion of this week raiding the offices and homes of journalists who’ve published stories clearly in the public interest.
His conclusion? Not many. He went on to argue that it is because we have developed a culture of accepting excessive state power, with no real thought about the consequences for civil liberties or the functioning of our democracy.
Sadly, I would have to agree with Aly, but as with so many surveys, the answer you get depends on the question you ask.
What if we asked, “Hands up who feels comfortable with relying on the Facebook posts and Twitter feeds of our politicians and departmental spokespeople for information about what our government is up to? Who thinks that is a good way to run a democracy?” Then, I bet you’d get a very different answer.
I agree that Australian media are hardly trusted by the public, but I am also convinced that most Australians recognise the need for some kind of independent watchdog keeping track of politicians and the government on our behalf. It might be imperfect and messy, but a free press has performed that role well enough to keep us broadly on track for much of our history.
Earlier this week, my colleague and fellow University of Queensland researcher Rebecca Ananian-Welsh laid out the intricate web of national security laws passed in recent years that collectively serve to straight-jacket journalists and threaten legitimate whistle-blowing.
In a number of research projects, we have been looking at both these laws and their impact on reporting, and while we still have a long way to go, the early results suggest something deeply troubling.
While they may have helped shore up national security, the laws have also led to a net loss of transparency and accountability. It has become harder for journalists to reach and protect sources and keep track of wrong-doing by government officials. It has also become harder for them to safely publish in the public interest without risking long years in prison or cripplingly expensive and traumatic court cases.
My organisation, the Alliance for Journalists Freedom, has published a white paper that offers a better way of balancing those two crucial elements of our democracy – national security and press freedom.
The most important of its seven recommendations is a Media Freedom Act. Australia has no legal or constitutional protection for press freedom. It isn’t even formally recognised in law; the High Court has merely inferred that we have a right to “political communication.”
That needs to change. The AJF is proposing a law that would write press freedom into the DNA of our legal system. It would both prevent our legislators from unnecessarily restricting journalists from doing their jobs and give judges a benchmark they can use whenever they are adjudicating cases that deal with media freedom issues.
That alone isn’t enough though. The second recommendation in the white paper calls for changes to the national security laws themselves.
Currently, many of the current laws that Ananian-Welsh laid out in her article include a “public interest” defence for journalists. But as we have seen in this week’s raids, that does nothing to stop the AFP from trawling through journalists’ documents for sources and forcing everyone into court.
Instead, there should be an exemption for journalists and their sources when reporting on matters of public interest.
That isn’t to suggest that journalists should be immune, though. Rather, the onus should be shifted to the authorities to show why the public interest defence should not apply. It is also important that the exemption include whistleblowers.
Beyond national security, there are a host of other laws that have contributed to a wide culture of secrecy at odds with the principles of open government.
Payouts under defamation laws now routinely run to millions, potentially destroying news organisations and chilling further investigative work. Shield laws that allow journalists to protect their sources in court are also inconsistent across states and need to be strengthened.
Suppression orders that judges use to smother reporting of certain court cases are being applied with alarming frequency and urgently need review. And whistleblower legislation needs to be strengthened to encourage and protect anybody speaking out about wrongdoing in government or elsewhere.
While the raids of the past week have been shocking, they have forced us all to think again about the role of the media in a democracy. If it leads to better legislation that both protects national security and media freedom, then some good might have come out of it after all.
Australians are increasingly concerned about how companies handle their personal data, especially online.
Faced with the increasing likelihood that this data will be compromised, either through cyber attacks or mishandling, companies are now being forced into a more comprehensive approach to collecting and protecting customers’ personal data. The question remains – what is the best approach to achieving this goal?
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has proposed that instead of talking about cybersecurity – companies, organisations and nations should be viewing the problem from a digital security risk management perspective.
Cybersecurity often overlooks risks to data that have nothing to do with a “cyber” element, even if people could agree on a definition of that term. In the case of Edward Snowden for example, he used a colleague’s credentials to access the system and copied files to a USB drive.
Digital security risk management involves getting everyone in an organisation to see digital risk as part of the overall risks that the organisation faces. The extent of risk any organisation is willing to take in any particular activity depends on the activities value. The aim is to manage the risk to a level that is acceptable to all parties.
What do you do about the weak link: humans?
It is worth remembering that in the case of the Equifax breach in which the personal details of up to 143 million customers in the US were leaked, it was largely human errors that were to blame.
Put simply, the person who was responsible for applying the patch (a piece of software designed to update a computer program or its supporting data, to fix or improve it) simply didn’t do their job. The software that was supposed to check whether the patch had been applied also failed to pick this up.
Until humans can be taken out of the equation entirely, it is almost impossible to remain entirely secure, or to avoid the inadvertent disclosure of personal and private information. Insider threat (as this type of risk is known) is difficult to combat and companies have tried various approaches to managing this risk including predictions based on psychological profiling of staff.
Automation and artificial intelligence may be a way of achieving this in the future. This works by minimising the amount of sensitive information staff have direct access to and surfacing only the analysis or interpretation of that data.
A litany of recent breaches
If you needed convincing about the vulnerability of personal data on the Internet, you only need look at Gemalto’s data breach website or DataBreaches.net.
The breaches of private and personal information don’t recognise national boundaries with hacks of companies like Yahoo having affected 3 billion users, including millions of Australians.
Of course, Australian companies and organisations have also been involved with spectacular data breaches. Last year saw the Australian Red Cross expose 555,000 customer records online.
Of more concern was the Australian Department of Health had published online what they believed were de-identified records of Medicare and pharmaceutical claims of more than 3 million patients. Researchers at the University of Melbourne discovered that the “encrypted” doctor provider numbers could be decrypted.
Are we looking at it in the wrong way?
Whilst there are practical steps companies can take to protect digital systems and data, there are more fundamental questions companies should be asking from a risk perspective. In order to navigate these questions, companies need to understand the data they collect and perhaps surprisingly, this is something most companies struggle to do.
The 13 Australian Privacy Principles from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner outline the basics of how organisations and agencies should handle personal information. The practical application of these principles involves an approach called Privacy By Design for all applications and services companies offer.
Enter confidential computing
For CSIRO’s Data61, the answer to breaches of this sort is “confidential computing”. Data61 is tasked with data innovation and commercialisation of its research ideas. Confidential computing is the remit of Data61’s latest spin-off, N1 Analytics.
The main aspect of confidential computing involves keeping data encrypted at all times and using special techniques to be able to query data that is still encrypted and only decrypting the answer.
This can even allow others outside an organisation to query internal data directly or link to it with their own data without revealing the actual underlying data to either party.
Aside from the case of allowing the use of sensitive data in research, this approach would allow a company with financial information say, to share this data with an insurance company without handing over sensitive information but theoretically letting the insurance company carry out extensive data analytics.
What companies should do now to protect your data
As a starting point, Australian companies should only collect the minimum of personal information that the business actually needs. This means not collecting extra information simply for marketing purposes at some later date for example.
Companies then need to explain in simple, clear, terms why information is being collected, what it is being used for and get users to consent to giving that information.
Companies then need to secure the data that is collected. Security involves dedicated staff understanding the data that is kept by a company and taking responsibility for its physical security and for controlling who has access, when they have access and what form they can access the data.
Lastly, they need to understand and enact a risk management approach to all digital data. This means that this is part of the overall culture of the company for every employee.
Australia’s record of human rights protection in areas such as Indigenous people, asylum seekers and freedom of speech are perennial topics of debate. The focus of these discussions is now shifting to whether Australia can take steps to establish a stronger legal framework for protecting human rights.
One reason for this is Australia is in the final stages of defending its record in a bid to secure a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. Another is that Australia’s recent experience on human rights is beset with deep flaws and inconsistencies.
Each of these issues has prompted federal inquiries. And there are still many more human rights issues that have not moved the government to act. These include the treatment of asylum seekers at regional processing centres, and the inexplicable jailing, sometimes for up to ten years, of people charged with crimes for which they are deemed unfit to stand trial because they suffer from mental illness.
The outgoing president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, was right when she said Australia’s human rights record is “regressing on almost every front”.
Another disturbing trend is the speed with which Australian parliaments are enacting laws that diminish human rights.
In 2016, the chief justice of the New South Wales Supreme Court, Tom Bathurst, found 52 examples of laws in that state alone that impinged on the presumption of innocence.
In February this year, the Institute of Public Affairs think-tank identified 307 laws that infringed just four rights: the presumption of innocence, natural justice, the right to silence, and the privilege against self-incrimination.
Another 2016 study found 350 current laws that infringe democratic rights such as freedom of speech.
Against this backdrop, many argue the time has come for Australia to adopt a national charter of rights. Australia is the only democratic nation in the world without such a national law.
The idea has been gaining traction, particularly at the state and territory level. The Queensland government recently announced it would enact a human rights act, based on the ACT and Victorian models, which have been in force for 13 and 11 years respectively. There are also pushes for NSW and Tasmania to adopt such legislation.
These developments raise the questions: if a charter or human rights act was to be enacted at the national level, what would it look like? And how would it protect human rights?
The starting point should not be a constitutionally entrenched bill of rights in the vein of the US Bill of Rights.
Instead, a charter of rights for Australia should be enacted by parliament as ordinary legislation. This would have the advantage of flexibility: future parliaments would be able to update the charter as needed to match changing community values and expectations.
A charter of rights in this form would not transfer sovereignty from parliament to the courts, and would not give courts the power to strike down laws.
Rather, following the models adopted in the ACT, Victoria and the UK, the courts’ role should be modest, limited to functions such as endeavouring to interpret legislation consistently with human rights, and identifying laws that breach human rights and which parliament should consider again.
This model puts the focus on improving human rights protection by way of parliament making good laws and government agencies applying those laws fairly.
One useful feature of the ACT and Victoria charters is that parliamentary committees scrutinise proposed laws for compatibility with human rights prior to being passed. For example, in 2014 alone, the ACT government moved almost 100 amendments to seven bills in response to comments and suggestions made by its human rights parliamentary committee.
The existence of a charter of rights can make it more likely that human rights concerns are raised – and fixed – before a law is passed.
The primary responsibility for ensuring human rights are protected under a charter should fall to the government, rather than the courts. The Australian Federal Police, for example, would have day-to-day responsibility for applying human rights in protecting the community from crime and safeguarding the rights of the accused.
This would mean that if the police chose to detain you as part of an anti-terrorism operation, it would be their responsibility to ensure you are treated humanely while detained. And the charter would provide for consequences should they fall short.
Finally, like instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a charter of rights could also have a symbolic force that would promote important values like freedom, community responsibility and cultural diversity.
One of the most important contributions a charter of rights can make is not the benefit it brings to the small number of people who succeed in invoking rights in court. Rather, its main value lies in how it can be used to educate, shape attitudes and bring hope and recognition to people who are otherwise powerless.
Imagine China takes down its national internet blocking system – aka the Great Firewall – tomorrow. Will this affect how you use the internet?
Without the Great Firewall, Facebook and Google will grow exponentially in China. Before long, the tech giants own a sizeable share of the Chinese market and have become good buddies with Beijing.
This scenario unfolds at a time when Donald Trump’s inward-looking policy upsets Silicon Valley’s efforts to expand its global empire, and when the US Congress further deregulates the internet industry, allowing internet service providers (ISPs), for example, to collect and trade user’s private data. So the tech giants decide to go to bed with China.
What does this have to do with you using your smartphone in, say, Sydney?
Well, if you have a Facebook presence, it means your social network information may now be used in a few additional ways, without your knowledge. Perhaps a few China-bashing news items, shared by your friends, will disappear from your news feed. And if you rely on Google, YouTube, Amazon or Uber, the data you accumulate during your daily routines may now empower not just the Little Sisters (that is, advertising companies), but also Big Brother himself.
According to urban geographer and unionist Kurt Iveson, surveillance cameras at the University of Sydney generate half of the internet traffic on campus. All the research, the paperwork, the social media back-and-forth, the videos people watch and the online games and music they play, all this online traffic, when added together, barely matches the terabytes of information generated by the surveillance feed.
That’s a pretty big achievement for those tiny cameras looking down at you in the corridors and from the street lamps.
The ‘big’ in Big Brother and Big Data
China has big ambitions. Its interests and investments in infrastructure on a global scale are well known. It will only be a matter of time before Beijing realises that digital assets are as vital, perhaps even more valuable, than highways and airports.
The Chinese Communist Party already has a good record of endorsing corporate platforms in the New Economy. Last November, China embraced the “disruptive” innovation of Uber and similar services. It became the first country to legalise the smartphone ride-hailing business on a national scale.
… a country that has consistently shown itself to be forward-thinking when it comes to business innovation.
Now you probably see why Silicon Valley might want to divorce Trump and have an affair behind Tiananmen.
Your digital rights
Maybe it’s not such a good idea, after all, to hastily agree to whatever terms and conditions tech companies hand down to you in tedious fine print. You don’t know your rights. You don’t know who has your data. But do you care?
As an individual, your power is limited. Using a virtual private network (VPN) can be a good start, but which VPN service can you really trust? This is a pertinent question because what if the VPN you use turns out to be a honeypot collecting data about you?
Your best shot, then, is to join a movement – such as a citizen group – to raise awareness or a watchdog organisation that guards against the mishandling of private data by telecommunication companies.
Other good places to seek refuge and spread the good word include non-government organisations that promote solidarity with IT-sector workers and hacker groups who develop new crypto technology. You don’t have to know programming or coding to join them, as even the best hackers will need other kinds of help.
Cities like Sydney have many such organisations. Plenty of folks are working on digital rights issues. Join them to protect your data from being infringed by Big Brother, his Little Sisters, and even telcos and ISPs.
Even if China doesn’t plan to take down its Great Firewall any time soon, that doesn’t make protecting your own data – personal information that reveals so much about your life – any less important.
As long as you have signed over your rights to corporations, they can still sell out big to Beijing, Moscow or whoever else is peeping from afar, at this very moment, into your campus or workplace CCTV system.
As we get older we have a greater risk of developing impairments in areas of cognitive function – such as memory, reasoning and verbal ability. We also have a greater risk of dementia, which is what we call cognitive decline that interferes with daily life. The trajectory of this cognitive decline can vary considerably from one person to the next.
Despite these varying trajectories, one thing is for sure: even cognitively normal people experience pathological changes in their brain, including degeneration and atrophy, as they age. By the time a person reaches the age of 70 to 80, these changes closely resemble those seen in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Even so, many people are able to function normally in the presence of significant brain damage and pathology. So why do some experience symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia, while others remain sharp of mind?
It comes down to something called cognitive reserve. This is a concept used to explain a person’s capacity to maintain normal cognitive function in the presence of brain pathology. To put it simply, some people have better cognitive reserve than others.
Evidence shows the extent of someone’s cognitive decline doesn’t occur in line with the amount of biological damage in their brain as it ages. Rather, certain life experiences determine someone’s cognitive reserve and, therefore, their ability to avoid dementia or memory loss.
How do we know?
Being educated, having higher levels of social interaction or working in cognitively demanding occupations (managerial or professional roles, for instance) increases resilience to cognitive decline and dementia. Many studies have shown this. These studies followed people over a number of years and looked for signs of them developing cognitive decline or dementia in that period.
Cognitive reserve is traditionally measured and quantified based on self reports of life experience such as education level, occupational complexity and social engagement. While these measures provide an indication of reserve, they’re only of limited use if we want to identify those at risk of cognitive decline. Genetic influences obviously play a part in our brain development and will influence resilience.
The fundamental brain mechanisms that underpin cognitive reserve are still unclear.
The brain consists of complex, richly interconnected networks that are responsible for our cognitive ability. These networks have the capacity to change and adapt to task demands or brain damage. And this capacity is essential not only for normal brain function, but also for maintaining cognitive performance in later life.
This adaptation is governed by brain plasticity. This is the brain’s ability to continuously modulate its structure and function throughout life in response to different experiences. So, plasticity and flexibility in brain networks likely contribute in a major way to cognitive reserve and these processes are influenced by both genetic profiles and life experiences.
A major focus of our research is examining how brain connectivity and plasticity relate to reserve and cognitive function. We hope this will help identify a measure of reserve that reliably identifies individuals at risk of cognitive decline.
Strengthening your brain
While there is little we can do about our genetic profile, adapting our lifestyles to include certain types of behaviours offers a significant opportunity to improve our cognitive reserve.
Activities that engage your brain, such as learning a new language and completing crosswords, as well as having high levels of social interaction, increase reserve and can reduce your risk of developing dementia.
Regular physical activity also improves cognitive function and reduces the risk of dementia. Unfortunately, little evidence is available to suggest what type of physical activity, as well as intensity and amount, is required to best increase reserve and protect against cognitive impairment.
There is also mounting evidence that being sedentary for long periods of the day is bad for health. This might even undo any benefits gained from periods of physical activity. So, it is important to understand how the composition of physical activity across the day impacts brain health and reserve, and this is an aim of our work.
Our ongoing studies should contribute to the development of evidence-based guidelines that provide clear advice on physical activity patterns for optimising brain health and resilience.