Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Defence Trade Controls Act

The IEEE Computer Society, SSIT Australia and the University of Melbourne are co-sponsoring an event in Melbourne on 10 April 2015 at 4.15pm-5.45pm. The topic is "The Future of Science & Technology Research under Defence Controls: A Forum on DTCB 2015". So what is all the fuss about?

As Dr Kevin Korb, the organiser and one of the panellists for the events, writes on his blog "Bayesians without Borders":

The [Defence Trade Controls Act] is set to take effect at the beginning of 2015 [now May 2016], criminalizing much of the research into high tech and applied science in Australia, whether conducted in universities or industry.
 For more information on the Act and its likely impact on industry and academic research, you can link to Kevin's blog here (background and impact), here (submission) and here (other links). To hear Kevin's and other perspectives on the likely impact of this legislation, you'll have to go to Alan Gilbert Building, G21 (Theatre 1), University of Melbourne at 4.15 on 10 April.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

From Davos to New York, data disaggregation takes the world stage

Sarah Lux-Lee

Robert Reich, former US Secretary of Labor, once joked that although he and Shaquille O’Neal have an average height of 6 feet, standing at 5 and 7 feet respectively, the NBA might be wise to consider more than just their average height before deciding to place Reich on the team.

Today, this sentiment is becoming increasingly central in international development. 

The importance of data in driving evidence-based development has been increasingly emphasized in development discussions.  The availability of real-time information in the developing world is growing, and development organizations are harnessing that data to better understand the needs of their constituents, and to devise policy and implementation strategies that best meet the most urgent development goals.

However, Big Data, along with the statistics it generates, often reflects broad, national averages that can paper over the experiences and needs of the most marginalized segments of society.  Just as the average height of 6 feet obscured Reich’s slightness relative to Shaq, so too the broad experience of a nation, as reflected by its aggregated data, can hide from view the needs of society’s most vulnerable groups.

The importance of disaggregating data in order to shine a light on the experience of disadvantaged groups was a common theme at two very different diplomatic events I attended in the past couple of weeks.  The first, held in Davos alongside the World Economic Forum in January, was a strategic discussion on how to engender a people-cantered approach to the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The second, the UN Economic & Social Council’s Youth Forum held in New York in February, brought together hundreds of young people from around the world to discuss the best ways to engage youth to become active global citizens.  Both discussions identified disaggregated data as essential to ensuring that development practitioners can best address the unique needs of those most in need.

In Davos, the point was eloquently made by Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, who noted that “it is rare for people to be heard as individuals; they are usually heard as a collective.”  Instead, Roth calls for a human rights approach to development, requiring development practitioners to refocus on the experience of the individual in order to ensure that those facing social exclusion or discrimination are protected.  The notion was echoed by Susan Myers of the UN Foundation, who identified major attainment gaps that become evident when data is reanalysed through a gender lens.  Myers pointed to the Data2X initiative as a leading effort to disaggregate data to reveal the unique situation of women and girls in developing countries.

Data disaggregation was similarly a focus at the UN ECOSOC Youth Forum in New York, where two days of dynamic discussions emphasized the point that “youth” tends to be regarded as a homogenous monolith, masking the needs of those young people who are especially disadvantaged due to minority status, geographic remoteness, disability, gender, or other distinguishing characteristics.  Youth representatives from around the world agreed that the needs of young people cannot effectively be addressed, nor their meaningful engagement in development obtained, without a better understanding of their heterogeneous characteristics and needs.

Increasingly, development practitioners are questioning the “Big” in “Big Data”, seeking to identify trends within broader datasets to ensure that the diversity of the human experience is properly reflected.  As we pursue a new agenda for development post-2015, data disaggregation will be an integral tool to ensure that no individual is left behind.

Friday, 7 November 2014

How and why Australian Customs shares information

Isobel O'Brien

Have you ever wondered whether your identity is being tracked when you go through Customs at an airport?  There is no doubt that your personal information from your passport is recorded.  Even your ‘biometric identifiers’, like fingerprints, are collected.  But how much do you know about how your personal details are stored and shared by Customs beyond your control? 

Data sharing for national security purposes

The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (‘Customs’) collaborates with governmental agencies, both nationally and internationally, by sharing the information it collects to “detect and deter unlawful movement of goods and people across the border.”

At the national level, such cross-agency data sharing unifies resources and centralises national security efforts, which enables greater accuracy in identifying potential security threats.  Analysis of information from multiple sources, including Customs, allows analysts to track peoples’ behavioural patterns and communications, as well as facilitating the identification of non-intuitive relationships between groups and individuals.  Identification of such trends aids in anticipating potential attacks, foreign interference and organised crime.

National agencies currently participating in information sharing agreements with Customs include the Australian Federal Police, Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Department of Defence, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Australian Security Intelligence Service, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

Cooperative data agreements 

Australian Customs has data sharing partnership with the AFP, the New South Wales, Victorian and Tasmanian police, Australian Transaction and Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) and the Australian Crime Commission, with a focus on preventing drug importation.  Customs often works particularly closely with the AFP and has developed a Joint Organised Crime Group (JOCG).  ‘Operation Inca’ is a specific example of such a partnership in 2007.  This operation targeted importations of the drug MDMA and led to the dismantling of a purported international drug ring, with 30 charges laid in Australia alone.  The partnership between Customs and law enforcement agencies at the state, national and international level enabled the sharing of information about the smuggling of cocaine in shipping containers, which had been gathered from surveillance data in ten different countries.  This led to the identification and arrest of the criminal ‘masterminds’ of the drug ring, as well as the smaller players. 

Customs also has a role in maritime security, protecting sovereign territories and preventing illegal activities in the Southern Ocean.  A current operation is the targeting of ‘illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing’, which widely affects ‘domestic, regional and international stakeholders’.  Illegal fishing is disrupted using measures such as the RP0A-IUU network, by which fishing vessels engaging in illegal activity are barred from accessing regional ports.  This network involves sharing of information with partner agencies, including the Department of Defence, law enforcement agencies and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who work closely on collaborative initiatives combating border threats and illegal maritime activities. 

Biometrical and biographical data, immigration status and travel history will soon be shared and stored in the chips in e-passports in Australia.  At international airports and seaports, Australian Customs is already able to collect passengers’ biometric information.  This data may include fingerprints, facial recognition imaging or iris scans, and is stored in the Automated Biometric Identification System database.  Prospective laws foreshadowed in the ‘Foreign Fighters’ bill indicate that Customs would not only be able to store such information for its own purposes, but also share it with an international database of biometric information for unspecified national security purposes.  The biometric data collected at borders will be passed to the AFP and national security agencies to pre-emptively assess passengers’ risk status prior to their arrival in Australia, by matching passengers’ data to international databases.  Funding is currently being directed to developing secure international databases with partner countries to target identity fraud. 

International examples of large scale data exchange illustrate the potential for future expansion of Australian Customs’ data sharing capabilities, such as through direct connections with integrated global databases.  In the United States, biometrics databases hold millions of entries as part of the US-VISIT program and store the information of every international traveller within the US and those seeking to work, study or live in the country.  Such biometric databases are shared with over 77 foreign governments, including Australia, through collaborative data agreements.  The US also collects biometric data with private bodies, such as Facebook, for national security purposes.  Facebook’s data is mined for its vast collection of uploaded photographs and the site’s facial recognition software, which identifies individuals by matching faces to ‘tagged’ photographs.  This data enables significant accuracy in identification of individuals, as accounts are frequently linked to users’ real names.  The US further demonstrates the capacity for efficient data sharing between state and federal government bodies.  In response to the terrorist attacks in 2001, the federal US government reformed its predominantly siloed storage structure of biometric data to facilitate sharing between agencies through interoperable databases. 

Further issues regarding information sharing

The collection and sharing of information by agencies such as Customs poses many further issues for potential investigation.  It is useful to situate Customs’ data sharing activity within the broader context of resource and statutory limitations, which reduce efficiency and raise privacy concerns.  Lack of adequate funding and training can pose processing difficulties to individual agencies, which may lack the capacity to manage the sheer size and variety of information collected.  Further, when data is stored in multiple different ‘siloed’ systems, efficient data sharing is impeded by lack of interoperability and consistency between agencies.  Inadequate legislative privacy protections in Australia should also be flagged as an area of concern regarding the greater capacity of Customs and other agencies to share individuals’ private information.  Already, the small protections that do exist controlling information collection, such as the bar on the federal government from matching data in their possession to peoples’ tax file numbers, is being circumvented, as much of the information obtained by Australian governmental bodies is purchased from private organisations.  Such issues leave extensive scope for further investigation into the area of data sharing.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Driverless cars

You would have by now seen news about Google’s driverless car. The UK is reportedly allowing driverless cars on public roads from 2015. Even the Chinese search giant Baidu seems to be moving into this space. We don’t need to convince you that it is a very hot area. It is also one that can have a huge impact on our society -from having fewer accidents to more efficient use of roadways to the drivers (or driverless) license system.

Is Australia far behind? While having fully driverless cars on Australian public roads is probably some time away, driver-assisted technologies towards autonomous vehicles are being developed and tested in Australia. To this end, local IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) chapters are holding a panel seminar on Thursday 30 October in Sydney. Industry and research experts have been invited to chat about the current state of play. NSW government transport officials will talk about their recent trials. If this interests you, further details are here and remember to RSVP to

Date: Thursday 30 October 2014
Time: 6pm for 6:30pm start (approx. 90 mins)
Venue: Wesley Conference Centre, 220 Pitt St Sydney.
RSVP essential

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

"Digital Government" survey NSW

The 'Digital Government – what do you think?' survey has been released by the NSW Government.  They are seeking input to inform how NSW Government can become a government that thinks and operates digitally, with the goal of creating better customer experience. Feedback from the survey will be used by the Accelerating Digital Government Taskforce (comprised of public sector, industry and research representatives) to develop a digital government plan for NSW. This is about more than online transactions, and includes other technologies that connect people, information and services.

All of this raises multiple questions. Completing the survey is an opportunity to raise issues on viability, privacy, information security, and convenience (among other issues). As a blog devoted questions at the intersection of technology, social impact and law, we encourage readers (particularly those in NSW) to have their say. We have been assured that responses to the survey will be taken into account by the Taskforce, both in formulating a plan and in learning how to better engage with industry and the community on issues raised.

The full terms of reference and other project information are available here. The short survey (approx. 5 minutes) is available here.

The survey will close at 9.00 am on Monday 29 September 2014.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Pro bono legal help in RRR areas – is video conferencing the answer?

National Pro Bono Resource Centre
Getting services out to disadvantaged people in rural, regional and remote (RRR) areas is difficult, and legal services are certainly no exception. With ratios of up to one lawyer to 3,000 people in RRR Australia and the limited availability of pro bono legal assistance, any opportunity to improve access to justice in RRR areas is welcome.

Sheer distance has made it difficult to bring pro bono resources out to ‘the bush’, but technology might provide the answer. The proposed roll out the National Broadband Network (NBN) in Australia raised hopes that video conferencing could be the solution to overcoming these barriers.

Picture this. A disadvantaged person walks into a community legal centre. A lawyer awaits them, sitting behind their desk. They exchange greetings, the client explains their situation and the lawyer offers free legal advice on the matter. The only thing is, they are hundreds of kilometres apart.

Nicola Roxon at the launch of the service

Video conferencing has the potential to make scenarios like this possible – face-to-face consultations between disadvantaged clients in RRR areas and solicitors from well-resourced firms in major cities, with the help of a local service provider and a couple of computers. It seems like a great solution and, best of all, the lawyer doesn’t even need to leave their seat! But does it work?

Pro bono legal assistance by video conferencing has already been trialled with some success in the US and UK. However, a series of government funded pilot projects in Australia have revealed that it’s not quite as simple as the scenario described above.

The Australian pilot projects: some assumptions and lessons learnt

The National Pro Bono Resource Centre (NPBRC) has produced an article which brings together all the lessons learned from the various Australian pilot projects funded by the previous Labor government’s NBN Regional Legal Assistance Program. NPBRC managed one of the pilot projects in partnership with global law firm DLA Piper and the Hobart Community Legal Centre (HCLS). The project involved using Skype to connect disadvantaged clients from Sorell, in rural Tasmania, with solicitors at DLA Piper’s Melbourne office. The HCLS solicitors also received mentoring assistance and training sessions from DLA Piper via Skype.

Team members from NPBRC, HCLS and DLA Piper at the Sorrell outreach service
National Pro Bono Resource Centre

Before the project commenced, the major assumption was that video conferencing would save time and costs that are usually associated with providing in-person legal advice in RRR areas. However, this was not necessarily the case. In one instance, double handling was experienced between the DLA Piper and HCLS solicitors because both were involved in gathering documents to assist a client. Double handling problems are a product of working remotely, particularly where disadvantaged clients need some in-person support. However, with careful planning, especially determining the party who has carriage of the matter at the outset, these inefficiencies could be minimised.

Another assumption was that clients would be unfamiliar with the video conferencing technology or find it difficult to use. In fact, a pilot project run by Welfare Rights Centre SA (WRCSA) reported that challenges related to a lack of familiarity were largely experienced by the service provider rather than the client. While clients were generally happy to continue using video conferencing once they had started, local service providers continued to be reluctant and were unlikely to be able to support clients’ use of it. 

NPBRC also found that solicitors at HCLS expressed discomfort with Skype when seeking mentoring assistance and preferred to revert to phone calls which they felt would be “less of an imposition” from the DLA Piper solicitors’ perspective. Their reluctance to use the video conferencing technology was despite NPBRC’s support with installing the software and in conducting practice video calls between Sorell and Sydney. These situations demonstrate the importance of service provider confidence with video technology to the success of any video conferencing service.

In terms of what worked well, the greatest benefit in NPBRC’s pilot project came from the ongoing mentoring assistance, which has allowed the HCLS solicitors to take on matters with more confidence knowing that DLA Piper’s expertise is just a Skype call away. Video conferencing has significant potential to increase access to legal resources, as well as training and workshops that assist more than one person at a time and in multiple locations.

Another unexpected benefit discovered in Redfern Legal Centre’s pilot project was the use of video conferencing to provide interpreting services to clients, where the interpreter could be connected via video from a third location.

Concluding remarks
The pilot projects have revealed that there are many factors that need to be considered to ensure pro bono legal services using video conferencing run effectively and efficiently. These include the availability of infrastructure, funding, training for local service providers and on-ground support for clients. Although video conferencing in itself is no silver bullet for access to justice in RRR areas, there are models that can use this technology to provide greater access to pro bono legal assistance.

So, is video conferencing the answer? Not yet. But with the right mix of planning, training and support, it certainly has potential.

This post is adapted from an article originally prepared by the National Pro Bono Resource Centre.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Information pretends to be free

Nicholas Sheppard

Someone recently suggested to me that the cyberlibertarians who shouted "information wants to be free" in the 1990s might be responsible for the present-day Internet being awash with targeted advertising and the data collection that it entails.

As I understand the argument, the claim is that academic free-content advocates — themselves largely supported by public funding — insisted that the Internet provide information free of charge. Requiring funding to actually create and maintain web sites, companies like Google and Facebook turned to advertising.  And so our searches, profiles, news, emails and much else besides now come with corporate messages attached.  Even better, Internet companies are able to leverage the intimate knowledge that they have of their users to better serve the messaging needs of their actual customers (the advertisers).

Whatever the merits of this argument, I think it it does expose two elephants in the room when it comes to making information free: public funding and advertising.  Little information of any substance is ultimately free — most "free" information is paid for by the public or by advertisers.  I guess most of the rest is donated by contributors after doing whatever it is they do to earn a salary.

Now, I think there are some good arguments for providing public information at public expense, and plenty of us accept advertising in return for free-to-air television, inexpensive newspapers and convenient search engines. But would it sound so cool to be proclaiming "information wants to be funded by the public" or "information wants to carry advertising"?  And would anyone sign up for a service boasting that "your information wants to be free to advertisers"?

When I worked in copyright and digital media, I sometimes heard suggestions that the music industry needed to find a business model that "feels free".  Google certainly seems to make plenty of money this way, even if the return on investment for social media companies is open to debate.  But "feels free" implies "ignorant of the cost", leaving search engine and social media users surprised and offended whenever the data collection activities of their "free" service providers are disclosed.

All this got me wondering: would anyone actually pay for searching or social media if it meant they could do so without advertising and without being the subject of data collection machinery?  (Let's assume for the moment that we can trust our paid-for search engines and social media providers to ignore or discard whatever data we send through their services.)

Some people do pay for email services and personal web sites — though a quick survey of my address book shows that the great majority are using either a work address, or one of Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail.  Most of the exceptions, including me, are professional computer technologists for whom setting up email systems and websites is all in a day's work.  Many people also pay for access to online virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and Second Life, and some pay for online dating services.  But I don't think I've ever heard of anyone paying to search the web or join a social network.

I went on to discover (using a free search engine of course) that some psychologists have argued for the existence of a "zero price effect" by which users choose products offered at no charge even when, all things considered, paying for a similar product would serve them better.  Lawyers following these psychologists consequently argue that legislators ought to consider restricting the use of "free". That's not to say that we should outlaw services and products offered without charge, but that we should describe ad-supported, publicly-funded and other indirectly-supported services as such and not as "free".  As David Adam Friedman puts it, "the free offer with accompanying obligation should no longer be considered free".

So let me re-phrase my earlier question: given the choice between a search engine or social network that collected your money, or one that collected your data, which would you choose?  Because "free" is not an option.