Only the Envelope: Opening Up Participation, Surveillance, and Consent in Performance

Vahri Mckenzie

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Like many Australians, I was distressed with the passing of the Data Retention Act in 2015, and
like many Australians, I did nothing actively to object. The Australian Government’s
Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act 2015 requires
telecommunications companies to retain and secure certain records for a period of two years.
Then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott memorably defended this new depth of data gathering by
using the analogue-era metaphor of the personal letter; the material to be gathered is the
metadata, akin to the material on the front of the envelope, while the contents of the letter
remain private (“Interview with Michael Brissenden, ABC AM” 2014). We need not worry about
invasions of privacy, the metaphor implies, because it is only the envelope that is gathered. In the
Channel Nine interview in which the proposed legislation was first explained, Abbott made an
error, later clarified, by referring to web-browsing history as metadata when it is in fact content.
“It is not what you’re doing on the internet, it’s the sites you’re visiting. . . . It’s not the content,
it’s just where you have been, so to speak” (cited in Griffiths 2014). Abbott’s confusion is
indicative of the limited understanding the public has about large-scale data gathering, so-called
big data, with which most of us are now involved, more or less unwittingly.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)57-71
Number of pages15
JournalPerformance Matters
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes


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