C'est nous qui brisons les barreaux des prisons, pour nos frères, La haine à nos trousses, et la faim qui nous pousse, la misère. Il y a des pays où les gens aux creux des lits font des rêves, Ici, nous, vois-tu, nous on marche et nous on tue nous on crève.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Victoria, the Surveillance State

Some of this information has been provided to me via a couple of sources, and is not widely known.

The State Government of Victoria funds, administers, and oversees a sizeable portion of the state’s ‘services’, from hospitals to housing. These welfare state services are spread across a number of Ministerial portfolios, as well as a number of ‘Departments’. As much as the libertarians may complain about it, when things go wrong in Australia, the locals tend to expect the relevant government to do something about it.

In addition to those services directly overseen by the State Government, we also have the so-called Non Government Agencies (NGAs), who are private firms to whom state services are outsourced and sub-contracted. This takes place by way of a competitive tendering process and much red tape, though I suspect some of the state’s more ardent capitalists might question precisely how ‘competitive’ the whole process is. In welfare-related industries, the NGAs in Victoria are auspiced almost entirely by one Christian church/religious group or another. The services themselves are secular, but the infrastructure and so forth are provided by the agency and funded by the Government. The same agencies will often have a fundraising component or some other means of diverting cash into less secular activities.

In short, this means that there are hundreds of thousands of Victorians who will come into these services, in one capacity or another. Not unreasonably, we might expect each particular industry to maintain a database for a range of purposes – to facilitate better ‘service delivery’, communicate, for legal reasons, etc. After all, in Victoria we have legislation governing the privacy of individual’s personal information, and the limits to which such information can be used.

What is less reasonable is that there should be a centralised point at which all this information converges. Such a point has been constructed in the form of a computer program, known variously as CRIS or CRISP (as well as a couple of other acronymic monikers). This program was commissioned by the Victorian Government some years ago, and built by a private programming firm. My information now tells me that the Government has since bought out the program, owns it outright, and intends to market and sell it to other states and countries.

My understanding is that, functionally speaking, the above computer program was a turd. The Government spent ever-increasing amounts of cash to salvage the project, running up a bill that is somewhere in the order of $53 million.

The software itself applies to a range of Government programs, such as housing, disability services, youth justice, child protection, and the various NGA appendages attached to these services.

Now, a NGA worker cannot read the file of a housing worker, who in turn cannot read the file of a youth justice worker, even though each uses the same program, and may be dealing with the same individual. We can safely conclude that this program has nothing to do with improving communication or information sharing.

Secondly, the program is functionally inferior to its predecessors – slower, more prone to bugs, and tends to significantly increase the administrative burden of workers. The implementation of this program therefore must have nothing to do with ‘efficiency’, unless it was designed by half-wits.

The only reasons that I can see for foisting this software onto thousands of workers, and, by extension, hundreds of thousands of members of the public (as the software does not merely take details for individuals, but also for their associates) are firstly, that this information is siphoned back to the central branch of these Government agencies. In effect, a massive database has been created, including information about hundreds of thousands of Victorians. Given the ‘welfare’ orientation of most of these agencies, one can readily appreciate that much of the information is sensitive in nature. What does the Government intend to do with all this information? – I have no idea.

The second reason is much more entrepreneurial. I’m told that the program will be marketed and sold to other states (and possibly countries) on the basis of its promised ‘efficiencies’.

In the meantime, tens of millions of Victorian dollars have been blown on a useless piece of software, whose only virtue is being able to keep masses of people under a kind of surveillance. As I wrote earlier, few know of this nasty piece of work, possibly because the Vic Government is among the country’s more secretive. Who knows, this may even unite libertarians and Foucauldians or, more likely, it will simply allow the screws of Governmental control to turn a little tighter.

So spread the word, comrades, and do anything you can to fight this little tyranny, though it be of a petty, and bureaucratic form.