Tech firms are a bigger surveillance threat than government spies, a government figure has warned. 

“Everyday Australians” have more to fear from the data-harvesting of ‘big tech’ and private companies than from government intelligence agencies, Home Affairs boss Michael Pezzullo claims.

In an address at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) last week, Mr Pezzullo said Australia’s formal surveillance agencies are subject to far greater oversight mechanisms than private companies.

He said that “the citizenry” should focus more on “surveillance capitalism”.

“I think the more immediate pressing problem for the citizenry is to understand what companies are doing with that personal and sometimes intimate data, but which is almost - to pick up the key idea in surveillance capitalism - turning your privacy, your ‘self’, your preferences, your attitudes, who you are, into the commodity that’s either being sold back to the prime company with whom you’ve got a relationship, or being onsold,” Mr Pezzullo said.

“Everything the government will do will always be purposely designed by the parliament to be much more restrictive than that. 

“As citizens ourselves, I’m sure most of my colleagues who work in government don’t want that sort of ubiquitous sense of being under the gaze of someone else listening to you, looking at you, understanding what you’re doing, but that’s what’s happening in our private lives through the emergence of surveillance capitalism. 

“So I think there’s a broader discussion, and within that, as a subset of what governments can do, with all the checks and balances, the oversight, which is very properly put in place, I think we can have an informed discussion about what I’m willing to accept in terms of government surveillance of me, which should be incidental.”

At the same time, Home Affairs is leading federal government efforts to bring all of Australia’s surveillance and interception laws into a single, technology neutral Act.

Mr Pezzullo said government agencies would set a standard for “self-restraining surveillance”.

“We’d very much like to land this legislation as a model exemplar back to the private sector about how to engage in moderated, self-restraining surveillance,” he said.

“We can actually, in the design of the legislation, give everyday Australians confidence that it would be highly unusual for any of their data, any of their devices or indeed any of their engagement through their devices with data, to be the subject of surveillance or interception,” he said.

“As we move hopefully away from a notion which has crept into the discussion around surveillance of the mass ingestion of data almost for a ‘store it and use it later’ basis, I certainly - speaking almost personally - would like to think that most everyday citizens would be able to go about their daily business, presuming - because they know what their own behaviours are - that if they’re not involved in criminal activity, child sexual exploitation, money laundering, terrorism - that they should feel to a very high level of confidence that their communications, their devices, their interaction on the internet is in fact not the subject of any kind of government scrutiny or attention whatsoever. 

“If your behaviours aren’t of the categories we’ve been talking about, you should be able to assume - unlike maybe some private companies - that you are not the subject of a government gaze, of intrusion.

“That’s a very different direction from the way in which all of society is otherwise going.”