As tensions remain at fever pitch between Tehran and Washington, Iran continues to breach limits agreed in the 2015 Iran deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Since Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal in May 2018, its future has become more and more uncertain.
Iran has enriched uranium beyond the level agreed in the deal. A UN report published in late September confirmed reports that the Iranian nuclear agency had begun operating more advanced centrifuges, the machines used to enrich uranium.
The Western media report these events by relating them to the materials needed for a nuclear weapon. Yet Iran insists that it “will never pursue a nuclear weapon” and that all of its activities are necessary for civilian nuclear power.
The difference between peaceful civilian nuclear energy programmes and the military production of nuclear weapons seems an obvious distinction. And yet, there have been major shifts in the policy regarding this line since explosive nuclear fission was first achieved in the US in 1945. These are partly rooted in a simple and relatively uncontested principle, that there is there is no strict technical difference between the fissile material used in a civilian energy nuclear reactor and that used in a nuclear weapon.
After World War II, the US initially restricted access to “all data concerning the manufacture or use of atomic weapons, the production of fissionable material, or the use of fissionable material in the production of power” in the Atomic Energy Act of 1946.
This meant strict restrictions were put in place on exchanging information on nuclear technology even between the US and the UK, otherwise close allies. The policy was based on that principle that there was little practical difference between the knowledge necessary to build nuclear reactors and that needed to produce “atomic” weapons, such as those the Americans dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
US President Harry Truman strongly believed that by restricting access to its information about all nuclear technology, the US could maintain a technical barrier to the production of nuclear weapons elsewhere in the world. He was so convinced of this, that he defied the scientific consensus that the Soviet Union tested a bomb in 1949, saying:
I am not convinced the Russians have achieved the know-how to put the complicated mechanism together to make an A-Bomb work, I am not convinced they have the bomb.
However, the Soviet Union had indeed tested a device, albeit with the help of some technical espionage. Then, despite the restrictions on information sharing, the UK tested a weapon in 1952. By the end of 1953, the Soviet Union had followed the US in successfully exploding a thermonuclear weapon.
Atoms for Peace
The initial hopes for a US technical monopoly were dashed. Reversing previous policy, US President Dwight Eisenhower told the UN in 1953 that “the dread secret and the fearful engines of atomic might are not ours alone”. As part of the Atoms for Peace programme, the US spearheaded the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency to help apply atomic energy to other areas of life such as agriculture and medicine, as well as the production of energy.
Over the next 20 years, much previously secret information and technology was shared around the world. For example, the US provided research reactors and enriched uranium to a wide variety of countries including Iran. There was a general tone of optimism over the future of civilian nuclear energy.
This laissez-faire attitude towards the “peaceful uses” of nuclear technology was even enshrined in Article IV of the 1970 Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons treaty, which stated a “inalienable right” to “research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” and “the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy”.
This distinction between the civilian and military uses of nuclear technology started to unravel after India exploded a nuclear device in May 1974. This device, supposedly nicknamed the Smiling Buddha, was technically developed outside of the agreements that India had with Canada, who supplied it with nuclear reactors, and the US, who supplied heavy water, needed to sustain a nuclear reaction in those reactors.
However, this outside nuclear assistance was crucial to the nuclear weapons programme. As Homi Sethna, chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission between 1972 and 1983, later wrote: “The initial (nuclear) cooperation agreement itself has been the bedrock on which our nuclear programme has been built.”
Despite India’s attempts to brand the test a “peaceful nuclear explosion”, it set off a flurry of concern within the US as well as in other supplier countries including the Soviet Union, UK, and Canada. The worry was that if India, not seen as a developed nation, could produce a nuclear explosion on the back of nominally civilian nuclear assistance, so could others. The worldwide energy crisis of the early 1970s had led many countries to pursue nuclear energy and the Indian example made the growing spread of nuclear technology appear an ominous and menacing development.
The tenor of the debate had changed. For example, in 1975 a deal was announced in which West Germany agreed to provide Brazil with a complete civilian nuclear fuel cycle, potentially including the abilities to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium. The New York Times called this “nuclear madness”.
A general reorientation in nuclear policy began. Since then, the nuclear story has generally been one of viewing civilian nuclear programmes as a pathway towards a military nuclear weapons capability. Restrictions on the transfer of and access to nuclear materials and technology have increased. For example, the US and other suppliers began to co-operate in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group to restrict access to nuclear technology, for example by not exporting the technology for producing plutonium or enriching uranium.
Yet, academic research shows that the technical capability to enrich uranium is within reach of nearly all states. Although civilian power programmes increase the technical capacity of a state to build nuclear weapons, they have important countervailing political effects that limit the odds of the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Despite this, public and media opinion seems tilted towards the view that the US or other supplier states can control the development of nuclear weapons through technical constraints. As such, it seems unlikely that the set of circumstances that produced the JCPOA in the first place – a deal built around restricting Iran’s nuclear capabilities – will happen again.
Australia’s space industry is set to grow into a multibillion-dollar sector that could provide tens of thousands of jobs and help replenish the dwindling stocks of precious resources on Earth. But to make sure they don’t flame out prematurely, space companies need to learn some key lessons about sustainability.
Sustainability is often defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Often this definition is linked to the economic need for growth. In our context, we link it to the social and material needs of our communities.
We cannot grow without limit. In 1972, the influential report The Limits to Growth argued that if society’s growth continued at projected rates, humans would experience a “sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity” by 2070. Recent research from the University of Melbourne’s sustainability institute updated and reinforced these conclusions.
Our insatiable hunger for resources increases as we continue to strive to improve our way of life. But how does our resource use relate to the space industry?
There are two ways we could try to avert this forecast collapse: we could change our behaviour from consumption to conservation, or we could find new sources to replenish our stocks of non-renewable resources. Space presents an opportunity to do the latter.
Asteroids provide an almost limitless opportunity to mine rare earth metals such as gold, cobalt, nickle and platinum, as well as the resources required for the future exploration of our solar system, such as water ice. Water ice is crucial to our further exploration efforts as it can be refined into liquid water, oxygen, and rocket fuel.
But for future space missions to top up our dwindling resources on Earth, our space industries themselves must be sustainable. That means building a sustainable culture in these industries as they grow.
How do we measure sustainability?
Triple bottom-line accounting is one of the most common ways to assess the sustainability of a company, based on three crucial areas of impact: social, environmental, and financial. A combined framework can be used to measure performance in these areas.
In 2006, UTS sustainable business researcher Suzanne Benn and her colleagues introduced a method for assessing the corporate sustainability of an organisation in the social and environmental areas. This work was extended in 2014 by her colleague Bruce Perrott to include the financial dimension.
This model allows the assessment of an organisation based on one of six levels of sustainability. The six stages, in order, are: rejection, non-responsiveness, compliance, efficiency, strategic proactivity, and the sustaining corporation.
Sustainability benchmarking the space industry
Using freely available information about SpaceX, I benchmarked the company as compliant (level 3 of 6) within the sustainability framework.
While SpaceX has been innovative in designing ways to travel into space, this innovation has not been for environmental reasons. Instead, the company is focused on bringing down the cost of launches.
SpaceX also relies heavily on government contracts. Its profitability has been questioned by several analysts with the capital being raised through the use of loans and the sale of future tickets in the burgeoning space tourism industry. Such a transaction might be seen as an exercise in revenue generation, but accountants would classify such a sale as a liability.
The growing use of forward sales is a growing concern for the industry, with other tourism companies such as Virgin Galactic failing to secure growth. It has been reported that Virgin Galactic will run out of customers by 2023 due to the high costs associated with space travel.
SpaceX’s culture also rates poorly for sustainability. As at many startups, employees at SpaceX are known to work more than 80 hours a week without taking their mandatory breaks. This problem was the subject of a lawsuit settled in 2017. Such behaviour contravenes Goal 8 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which seeks to achieve “decent work for all”.
Australia is in a unique position. As the newest player in the global space industry, the investment opportunity is big. The federal government predicts that by 2030, the space sector could be a A$12 billion industry employing 20,000 people.
Presentations at the Australian Space Research Conference by the Australian Space Agency made one thing clear: regulation is coming. We can use this to gain a competitive edge.
By embedding sustainability principles into emerging space startups, we can avoid the economic cost of having to correct bad behaviours later.
We will gain the first-mover advantage on implementing these principles, which will in turn increase investor confidence and improve company valuations.
To ensure that the space sector can last long enough to provide real benefits for Australia and the world, its defining principle must be sustainability.
With two-thirds of a global population of 9.4 billion people expected to live in urban areas by 2050, we can expect a change in the domestic living arrangements we are familiar with today.
In high-density cities, the static apartment layouts with one function per room will become a luxury that cannot be maintained. The traditional notion of a dedicated living room, bedroom, bathroom or kitchen will no longer be economically or environmentally sustainable. Building stock will need to work harder.
The need to use building space more efficiently means adaptive and responsive domestic micro-environments will replace the old concept of static rooms within a private apartment.
These changes will reframe our idea of what home means, what we do in it, and how the home itself can support and help inhabitants with domestic living.
So how will these flexible spaces work?
Sidewalk Labs and IKEA are collaborating with Ori, a robotic furniture startup that emerged from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to transform our use of increasingly sparse urban living space. They have developed ways to enhance existing apartments with pre-manufactured standardised products to make living spaces flexible.
Leading product designers have produced tantalising concepts of how these newly developed products could enhance our lives in cities where space is at a premium. One example is based on a floor plan measuring just 3m by 3.5m.
The more intensive use of building space with hyper-dense living will have impacts on circulation spaces. It will require more services in tighter spaces and a vigilant eye on emergency evacuation pathways. Public space will be much more crowded and play a more important role in our well-being.
The robotic furniture that is available now could also help people with some form of impairment negotiate their home environment. An example is a bed that tilts up into a position that makes it easier to get out.
Some furniture now on the market has similar mechanically assisted functions to help people get out of a chair. This can be expanded into a broader range of facilitated living aids for people with physical and other impairments.
Ease of transformation is the key
Mobile furniture is not a new idea. The late 1980s and early 1990s spawned a whole range of mobile furniture, such as tables on wheels and sideboards with castors.
We have always tried to make rooms adaptable. Japanese screens or room dividers were one way. We have space-saving and transforming furniture from IKEA such as folded-up hallway tables that can become dining tables.
The idea of being able to transform our living space made these mobile furnishings enticing. But they all required a range of manual actions and this effort meant that, after a few initial experiments with them, they ended up in one static position. These mobile items became integrated and firmly located within the accumulations of things that make up our private sphere and who we are.
Industrial designers such as the late Luigi Colani designed pre-manufactured dwellings with rotating interiors – but the ease of transformation is what really makes a difference now. It’s likely to have reverberating effects.
The term robotic furniture conjures up Jetsons-like images, but what this means is we will have adaptive spaces. Rooms will transform from bedroom into living room or from study into entertainment space at the touch of a button, a gesture, or a voice command.
While the videos (above) of beautifully designed spaces make the idea tantalisingly attractive, we need to bear in mind these are initial concepts, even though well-developed. But this heralds the beginning of an entirely new way of conceiving and inhabiting space. We have reached a time where everything is in flux.
It introduces another element into our daily routine. The time it takes for the transformation to be completed plays a big role. Too slow and we think twice about it, too fast and it might knock a few things about. In the examples shown (above) they are workable and safe.
If we take this development a step further, the way our cupboards store and provide access to our things might be next in line for robotic optimisation.
It’s not just rooms that will be transformed
There are still questions to be answered. For example, will the speed of the spatial transformation taking place influence the speed of our personal routines, like the time we allow for our morning coffee routine before heading out the door?
How will these new flexible spaces affect our sense of belonging and feeling at home, when everything can change with a voice command?
Robotically optimised homes might change culture in similar ways to how digital communications altered our conversations, social conduct, personal relationships, and behaviour.
The way we think about building and living in high-rise apartments, which we have done for hundreds of years, is about to take a turn. It could transform how we conceive of and inhabit vertical space.
Existing building typologies and the ways and means of how buildings are designed and developed will change entirely. This has the potential to have a massive and disruptive impact on real estate development, building design and regulation, construction methods, housing and social policy.
Back in the 1990s – a lifetime ago in internet terms – the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells published several books charting the rise of information networks. He predicted that in the networked age, more value would accrue in controlling flows of information than in controlling the content itself.
In other words, those who positioned themselves as network hubs – the routers and switchers of information – would become the gatekeepers of power in the digital age.
With the rise of internet juggernauts Google, Facebook, Amazon and others, this insight seems obvious now. But over the past two decades, a fundamentally new business model emerged which even Castells had not foreseen – one in which attracting users onto digital platforms takes precedence over everything else, including what the user might say, do, or buy on that platform.
Gathering information became the dominant imperative for tech giants – aided willingly by users charmed first by novelty, then by the convenience and self-expression afforded by being online. The result was an explosion of information, which online behemoths can collate and use for profit.
The sheer scale of this enterprise means that much of it is invisible to the everyday user. The big platforms are now so complex that their inner workings have become opaque even to their engineers and administrators. If the system is now so huge that not even those working within it can see the entire picture, then what hope do regulators or the public have?
Of course, governments are trying to fight back. The GDPR laws in Europe, the ACCC Digital Platforms report in Australia, and the DETOUR Act introduced to the US Congress in April – all are significant attempts to claw back some agency. At the same time, it is dawning on societies everywhere that these efforts, while crucial, are not enough.
Gatekeepers reign supreme
If you think of the internet as a gigantic machine for sharing and copying information, then it becomes clear that the systems for sorting that information are vitally important. Think not just of Google’s search tool, but also of the way Google and Amazon dominate cloud computing – the largely invisible systems that make the internet usable.
Over time, these platforms have achieved greater and greater control over how information flows through them. But it is an unfamiliar type of control, increasingly involving autonomous, self-teaching systems that are increasingly inscrutable to humans.
Information gatekeeping is paramount, which is why platforms such as Google, Amazon and Facebook have risen to supremacy. But that doesn’t mean these platforms necessarily need to compete or collude with one another. The internet is truly enormous, a fact that has allowed each platform to become emperor of a growing niche: Google for search, Facebook for social, Amazon for retail, and so on. In each domain, they played the role of incumbent, disruptor, and innovator, all at the same time.
Now nobody competes with them. Whether you’re an individual, business, or government, if you need the internet, you need their services. The juggernauts of the networked age are structural.
Algorithms are running the show
For these platforms to stay on top, innovation is a constant requirement. As the job of sorting grows ever larger and more complex, we’re seeing the development of algorithms so advanced that their human creators have lost the capacity to understand their inner workings. And if the output satisfies the task at hand, the inner workings of the system are considered of minor importance.
Meanwhile, the litany of adverse effects are undeniable. This brave new machine-led world is eroding our capacity to identify, locate, and trust authoritative information, in favour of speed.
It’s true that the patient was already unwell; societies have been hollowed out by three decades of market fundamentalism. But as American tech historian George Dyson recently warned, self-replicating code is now out there in the cyber ecosystem. What began as a way for humans to coax others into desired behaviours now threatens to morph into nothing less than the manipulation of humans by machines.
The digital age has spurred enormous growth in research disciplines such as social psychology, behavioural economics, and neuroscience. They have yielded staggering insights into human cognition and behaviour, with potential uses that are far from benign.
Even if this effort had been founded with the best of intentions, accidents abound when fallible humans intervene in complex systems with fledgling ethical and legal underpinnings. Throw malign intentions into the mix – election interference, information warfare, online extremism – and the challenges only mount.
If you’re still thinking about digital technologies as tools – implying that you, the user, are in full control – you need to think again. The truth is that no one truly knows where self-replicating digital code will take us. You are the feedback, not the instruction.
Regulators don’t know where to start
A consensus is growing that regulatory intervention is urgently required to stave off further social disruption, and to bring democratic and legal oversight into the practices of the world’s largest monopolies. But, if Dyson is correct, the genie is already out of the bottle.
Entranced by the novelty and convenience of life online, we have unwittingly allowed silicon valley to pull off a “coup from above”. It is long past time that the ideology that informed this coup, and is now governing so much everyday human activity, is exposed to scrutiny.
The challenges of the digital information age extend beyond monopolies and privacy. This regime of technologies was built by design without concerns about exploitation. Those vulnerabilities are extensive and will continue to be abused, and now that this tech is so intimately a part of daily life, its remediation should be pursued without fear or favour.
Yet legislative and regulatory intervention can only be effective if industry, governments and civil society combine to build, by design, a digital information age worthy of the name, which doesn’t leave us all open to exploitation.
Australia’s consumer watchdog has recommended major changes to our consumer protection and privacy laws. If these reforms are adopted, consumers will have much more say about how we deal with Google, Facebook, and other businesses.
The proposals include a right to request erasure of our information; choices about whether we are tracked online and offline; potential penalties of A$10 million or more for companies that misuse our information or impose unfair privacy terms; and default settings that favour privacy.
The report from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) says consumers have growing concerns about the often invisible ways companies track us and disclose our information to third parties. At the same time, many consumers find privacy policies almost impossible to understand and feel they have no choice but to accept.
My latest research paper details how companies that trade in our personal data have incentives to conceal their true practices, so they can use vast quantities of data about us for profit without pushback from consumers. This can preserve companies’ market power, cause harm to consumers, and make it harder for other companies to compete on improved privacy.
Privacy policies are broken
The ACCC report points out that privacy policies tend to be long, complex, hard to navigate, and often create obstacles to opting out of intrusive practices. Many of them are not informing consumers about what actually happens to their information or providing real choices.
Many consumers are unaware, for example, that Facebook can track their activity online when they are logged out, or even if they are not a Facebook user.
Some privacy policies are outright misleading. Last month, the US Federal Trade Commission settled with Facebook on a US$5 billion fine as a penalty for repeatedly misleading users about the fact that personal information could be accessed by third-party apps without the user’s consent, if a user’s Facebook “friend” gave consent.
If this fine sounds large, bear in mind that Facebook’s share price went up after the FTC approved the settlement.
The ACCC is now investigating privacy representations by Google and Facebook under the Australian Consumer Law, and has taken action against the medical appointment booking app Health Engine for allegedly misleading patients while it was selling their information to insurance brokers.
Nothing to hide…?
Consumers generally have very little idea about what information about them is actually collected online or disclosed to other companies, and how that can work to their disadvantage.
A recent report by the Consumer Policy Research Centre explained how companies most of us have never heard of – data aggregators, data brokers, data analysts, and so on – are trading in our personal information. These companies often collect thousands of data points on individuals from various companies we deal with, and use them to provide information about us to companies and political parties.
Data companies have sorted consumers into lists on the basis of sensitive details about their lifestyles, personal politics and even medical conditions, as revealed by reports by the ACCC and the US Federal Trade Commission. Say you’re a keen jogger, worried about your cholesterol, with broadly progressive political views and a particular interest in climate change – data companies know all this about you and much more besides.
So what, you might ask. If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to lose, right? Not so. The more our personal information is collected, stored and disclosed to new parties, the more our risk of harm increases.
Potential harms include fraud and identity theft (suffered by 1 in 10 Australians); being charged higher retail prices, insurance premiums or interest rates on the basis of our online behaviour; and having our information combined with information from other sources to reveal intimate details about our health, financial status, relationships, political views, and even sexual activity.
In written testimony to the US House of Representatives, legal scholar Frank Pasquale explained that data brokers have created lists of sexual assault victims, people with sexually transmitted diseases, Alzheimer’s, dementia, AIDS, sexual impotence or depression. There are also lists of “impulse buyers”, and lists of people who are known to be susceptible to particular types of advertising.
Major upgrades to Australian privacy laws
According to the ACCC, Australia’s privacy law is not protecting us from these harms, and falls well behind privacy protections consumers enjoy in comparable countries in the European Union, for example. This is bad for business too, because weak privacy protection undermines consumer trust.
Importantly, the ACCC’s proposed changes wouldn’t just apply to Google and Facebook, but to all companies governed by the Privacy Act, including retail and airline loyalty rewards schemes, media companies, and online marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay.
Australia’s privacy legislation (and most privacy policies) only protect our “personal information”. The ACCC says the definition of “personal information” needs to be clarified to include technical data like our IP addresses and device identifiers, which can be far more accurate in identifying us than our names or contact details.
Whereas some companies currently keep our information for long periods, the ACCC says we should have a right to request erasure to limit the risks of harm, including from major data breaches and reidentification of anonymised data.
Companies should stop pre-ticking boxes in favour of intrusive practices such as location tracking and profiling. Default settings should favour privacy.
Currently, there is no law against “serious invasions of privacy” in Australia, and the Privacy Act gives individuals no direct right of action. According to the ACCC, this should change. It also supports plans to increase maximum corporate penalties under the Privacy Act from A$2.1 million to A$10 million (or 10% of turnover or three times the benefit, whichever is larger).
Increased deterrence from consumer protection laws
Our unfair contract terms law could be used to attack unfair terms imposed by privacy policies. The problem is, currently, this only means we can draw a line through unfair terms. The law should be amended to make unfair terms illegal and impose potential fines of A$10 million or more.
So far, the government has acknowledged that reforms are needed but has not committed to making the recommended changes. The government’s 12-week consultation period on the recommendations ends on October 24, with submissions due by September 12.
Earlier this year, a new app was launched in China to put the patriotism of Chinese citizens to the test.
Named “Study Xi to Strengthen the Nation”, the app quizzes users on all things related to President Xi Jinping – his policies, activities, achievements, theories and thoughts. Users can earn points and win prizes for correct answers and compete with colleagues and friends to see who knows the most about China’s leader.
The app is the latest example of a rethink by the Communist Party when it comes to its propaganda efforts and how best to justify the legitimacy of its one-party rule, extol the virtues of the party, and promote patriotism to an audience of young, tech-savvy Chinese.
For those institutions responsible for the production of effective propaganda, this is a real challenge. After all, propaganda in the 21st century has to go beyond forcing people to sit in study sessions on Friday afternoons, read the People’s Daily newspaper, or watch China Central Television (CCTV) in group meetings.
From sermons to ‘indoctritainment’
Thanks to a number of developments, the old propaganda messages of previous generations can easily be repackaged for millennials. Like the rest of the world, Chinese millennials are keen adopters of the latest mobile technologies and suffer from short attention spans. They are also just as enthusiastic as their Western counterparts about posting jokes, music videos and short, sharp, attention-grabbing memes on social media.
The Chinese government, meanwhile, is putting more of an emphasis on humanising its approach to leadership. Politicians are keen to be seen as relatable rather than authoritative figures.
So, to get its messaging across in a new way, party propaganda has morphed from dry sermons to what I like to call indoctritainment. And these campaigns are often high-end productions.
Increasingly, ideological messages are more effective if they are delivered using a platform that’s already been trialled and proven in marketing. In 2016, for instance, CCTV launched a promotion of the Communist Party in the form of a public awareness advertisement to mark the 95th anniversary of the founding of the party.
The one-minute video, titled “I am a Chinese Communist Party member,” features heartwarming vignettes of individuals from different walks of life – teacher, cleaner, surgeon, policeman, local public servant, fisherman – who are all good Samaritans doing their bit to help others.
The message is clear: the party is being re-branded as an organisation made up of unsung heroes. As the voice-over explains:
I am the first one to arrive, I am the last one to leave, I’m the one who thinks of myself the least, and cares about others the most … I am the Chinese Communist Party, and I am always there with you.
Another video promoting the Chinese military, “I am a Chinese soldier”, demonstrates the point. Even without the English subtitles, it’s not hard to see what the producers were going for: a patriotic Hollywood movie or romantic tear-jerker.
The pop culture treatment, with American accents
Another tactic is the use of popular culture as a way of conveying sometimes dense or dull Chinese government policies, especially if the intended audience is global.
In 2015, a video called “The 13 what” used catchy pop music, colourful animation, and American-accented English to explain China’s 13th five-year national plan.
Channelling David Bowie, Monty Python and the psychedelia of the 1960s, the three-minute video was produced by a digital media production team operating under the auspices of the government’s main propaganda offices in Beijing.
Two years earlier, the same studio also produced the widely circulated five-minute video clip, “How leaders are made”. Xi Jinping appears in the clip as a cartoon character, as do US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Light-hearted, zany, and (again) featuring American English, the video informs viewers that Xi has worked long and hard to move up China’s political ladder. The implication is that Xi’s power is just as legitimate as that of his Western counterparts.
Within a short period after its release, the video had been viewed more than a million times on Youku, China’s version of YouTube.
Propaganda by way of screen bullets
Increasingly, the Communist Party’s propaganda material goes viral only after it appears on popular video-sharing websites with “bullet screens”. This is an interactive feature that enables viewers to “shoot” text comments across the screen as the video is being streamed. It’s very popular with younger audiences.
One of China’s biggest bullet screen platforms is Bilibili, often referred to as “the B site”.
The site used to be occasionally shut down for streaming what the government considers “morally unsound” material.
To stay on the party’s good side, Bilibili now plays host to a wide suite of propaganda produced by CCTV or the Chinese Department of Propaganda. In 2015, the Communist Youth League of China also began to hold regular courses on the site aimed at promoting patriotism among young people.
But how effective is it?
Just how successful these strategies have been is still not entirely clear. While the “Xi Jinping thought” app has captured the imagination of many outside China, party members who have been encouraged – in some cases requested – to download the app seem less than enthusiastic.
And some of these new propaganda efforts have backfired and attracted cynical responses online, even ridicule.
But judging by the many comments viewers have left on the B site, it seems fair to conclude that some of the tactics have had the intended effect of endearing the party and its leaders to the young and impressionable.
This is a reminder of how naïve it is to assume that technologies are inherently democratising, and that digital disruption is likely to spell the end of communism in China. Such assumptions still permeate most Western media stories about the Communist Party’s new propaganda strategies, but this is clearly not the case.
As the party’s propaganda strategies become more nuanced and sophisticated, so should our frameworks for understanding them.
It was bound to happen, and it did. Poorly crafted legislation – designed to allow national security agencies to collect information with the aim of protecting Australians from terrorists – is now reportedly being exploited by a range of different government agencies for other purposes.
It has been widely reported that the Veterinary Surgeons Board of WA, Victorian Fisheries, Liverpool City Council, and the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority are among the entities that have requested access to metadata.
Under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979, only agencies tasked with enforcing criminal law are entitled to access metadata from telecommunications companies.
Metadata is the information recorded by the telco when you make a call or use the internet. It can include information such as where you are, whom you called or texted, how long you talked for, how frequently you called or texted someone, what services you used, what websites you visited and when, and much more besides.
Under the legislation there are 22 criminal law enforcement agencies that can legally access these metadata. They include the federal police, state police forces, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, federal and state police integrity commissions, state anti-corruption bodies, and parts of the Australian Border Force.
The federal home affairs minister also has the power to declare other agencies as “enforcement agencies” under the law.
Why is data being accessed?
Generally, enforcement agencies are entitled to access metadata if it is either given to them voluntarily, or if they issue a formal request for information they believe is required to perform their duty.
The definition of an enforcement agency was narrowed in 2015, at the same time the federal government introduced the controversial mandatory data retention framework, which requires telcos to retain customers’ metadata for at least two years.
Before the definition was tightened, an estimated 80 different agencies were covered by the previous laws. They included not just criminal and national security investigators, but also a wide range of agencies pursuing financial matters such as unpaid fines or taxes.
Since 2015, however, most of those agencies found themselves excluded by the new definition of an enforcement agency, but could use a range of laws that still grant powers to request metadata directly. One example is Section 20 of the New South Wales Fair Trading Act 1987. According to the submission made by the Australian Communications Alliance to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, 60 federal and state agencies have sought access to metadata via this mechanism.
What is metadata anyway?
The information contained in metadata was infamously described by former Attorney-General George Brandis as the “material on the front of the envelope” (rather than the contents of the letter itself). But in reality it is much, much more.
Of course, metadata can be useful to help telcos improve their services, by revealing peak calling times or popular locations on the network. But you can also think of metadata as a digital breadcrumb trail that each of us leaves in our wake as we go about our lives.
It can provide enough information to establish a detailed picture of someone’s life: their daily routine, relationships, interests, preferences, and behaviour. It can even reveal someone’s location, to whom they have spoken, and for how long.
It seems excessive that two years’ worth of someone’s metadata can be kept on file and then obtained without a warrant. Although the low access threshold was called out in submissions before the law was passed, there was no public discussion of the implications for privacy and liberty.
If properly understood, the metadata access regime would not pass the pub test.
How is metadata really being used?
The federal home affairs department’s 2017-18 annual report lists a range of offences for which metadata has been sought by various agencies.
The report says that information was sought in relation to a total of 23,586 criminal offences including homicides, abductions, sexual assaults, fraud, robbery and drug offences.
The report also reveals that 300,781 items of metadata were disclosed during the reporting period in total across all categories.
Law enforcement agencies have claimed that metadata helps to eliminate suspects by revealing their networks and contacts. But there is no information regarding the use of metadata by government bodies that are not officially enforcement agencies within the meaning of the data retention laws.
In simple terms, there is no central public report that outlines how all state and federal agencies are accessing and using this information.
Metadata stored is available to any enforcement body with the power (under state or federal law) to request or require the information. By tightening its definition of “enforcement agencies” in 2015, the federal government denied many smaller agencies the right to access metadata directly, but did not prevent them from getting it via other means. As a consequence they were also excluded from supervision by the Commonwealth Ombudsman.
One interesting exception is that civil courts are prevented from obtaining metadata as evidence in civil proceedings, unless the metadata was collected and held by the telco for some purpose other than the mandatory data retention regime. Given the huge range of other authorities that can access it, this seems rather arbitrary and unfair.
So where to from here? Besides amending the law, it is also time for a wider public debate over the correct balance between our privacy and civil liberty on one hand, and our protection and national security on the other. This is especially important as we become more and more reliant on digital technology to live and work. Just imagine the privacy implications with 5G, when more personal devices are connected to the internet like your smart meter, light bulbs and toaster.
This article was coauthored by Patrick Fair, Chairman of the Communications Reference Panel, Communications Alliance.
Hype continues to surround the roll-out of 5G technology in Australia and across the world.
While there is promise of faster network speeds, and talk of exciting technologies like driverless cars, there’s also a growing movement to stop the implementation of 5G due to concerns about the effects it may have on our health.
But the scientific evidence we’ve got assures us there’s no reason to worry. The radio frequencies powering 5G will be well below the exposure limits known to cause harm.
What is 5G and how does it work?
5G is the 5th generation of mobile phone technology. All generations of mobile phones work using what’s called electromagnetic energy. The specific type of electromagnetic energy used by mobile phones is known as radiofrequency, sometimes called radio waves.
This type of radiation is non-ionising, so it doesn’t damage our DNA like ionising radiation can, such as that from the sun or x-rays. Ionising means there’s enough energy to remove electrons from the atoms they are attached to. This makes them unstable and is something non-ionising radiation, such as that used by mobile phones, lacks the power to do.
Initially, 5G will use the same type of radio waves as used in 4G. But in the future it will operate at higher frequencies. Higher frequencies allow for faster connections and response times, while also increasing capacity for more users to be connected.
The higher the frequency, the shorter the distance the radio waves travel. As the 5G frequencies will be higher than those used by previous mobile phone technologies, a lot more mobile phone base stations will be required.
Much of the public concern has centred around these two new elements – that the frequencies used will be higher, and that there will be more mobile phone base stations. While some people believe these two factors alone will lead to higher exposures, the reality is actually very different.
Can you be allergic to your Wi-Fi?
Higher frequencies don’t travel as far, meaning exposure is not as deep as previous generation technologies. This results in more superﬁcial exposures which are mostly absorbed by the skin rather than deeper in the body.
The idea that more base stations lead to higher exposures is also a common misconception. A larger number of base stations will actually provide a more efficient network. This means mobile phones can operate at a reduced power, which is likely to result in reduced overall personal exposure.
Research and regulation
Importantly, we have no evidence of any established health effects from the exposures related to mobile phones, despite extensive research. This consensus has been reiterated by independent international expert bodies.
We know a lot about how radiofrequency interacts with the human body. Health effects occur from exposure when there is a large rise in body temperature. But this will only be seen at power levels far higher than those used in telecommunications, like from a microwave oven.
Exposures from mobile phones and their base stations are tightly regulated. In Australia, safety standards are set by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA).
These standards are based on the current scientific evidence. They also cover the new frequencies that will be used by 5G. Importantly, the safety limits are set well below levels known to cause harm. And although technology can legally run at the safety limit, in reality, exposures are typically hundreds of times below these safety limits.
There is a lot of misinformation out there regarding 5G, and the electromagnetic energy associated with telecommunications more generally. While there’s no evidence of harm from such electromagnetic energy, there is evidence fear and anxiety can be harmful to our health and overall well-being.
While anti-5G sentiment and campaigning might be well-intentioned, without the scientific evidence to back these sentiments, it’s likely doing more harm than good. The challenge we now face is counteracting the misinformation out there.