The Insecurity Complex


At the nadir of Howard’s War on Terror (WOT) campaign – amid the hysterics, the $15 million fridge magnets and the witch-hunts – I flew to Canberra.

Canberra is known in the industry as "Security Valley" – or so Business Review Weekly reports. Among our capital’s X-Files of Government-subsidised companies is the Distillery, whose software "distils large amounts of information to find the hidden links between people and events." According to BRW, the Distillery secured grants from the Howard government totalling $16 million.
Another company, Argus Solutions, developed video technology that captures transient faces in crowds. Another, iOmniscient, developed video screening to detect "suspicious walks" (people’s gaits are collected in a database; the software might then detect them in a crowd). NetMap Analytics "discovers patterns of information, building connections that can reveal both threats and fraud." Its chief scientist John Galloway told BRW that more than suspect behaviour can be traced: "You can spot their train of thought."

Speculating on citizens’ trains of thought became routine in our former government’s national security regime. During the Jack Thomas trial, federal police agent Rinzi Jabbour admitted to a court there was "no direct evidence" that Thomas was involved in terror activities, but that he "believed" Thomas "intended" to become a terror "resource". This regime backfired spectacularly in the $7.5 million Mohamed Haneef case, but not without many similar under-publicised casualties beforehand. As Amy Corderoy reported in, this culture of speculation led to abuse of other innocent citizens – not just those accused of terrorism. Corderoy’s was just one story of what happens when agencies indeed try to "find the hidden links between people and events". Her story described the sinister consequences of merging commercial and national security interests.

But I wasn’t in Canberra to visit at any venture start-ups peddling their speculative wares. I flew there to visit what I thought would be a more scholarly National Security Summit, still held around September each year – a time when our memories of 9/11 are revived.

If you want to learn what goes on at national security summits, you can’t be just a curious citizen or even a regular scholar, as each ticket costs more than a grand (happily, I got in for free). You can, though, be a politician or a newspaper commentator: some, including The Australian’s Cold Warrior Greg Sheridan, were even presenting sessions. The Summit is run by an outfit called the Homeland Security Research Centre with the Federal Government’s Research Network for a Secure Australia, whose tagline isn’t (as you might expect) "Protecting Australian Citizens", but "Protecting Australian Infrastructure".

More disappointingly, the event is less think-tank and more trade fair, with evidence-lite papers and Boy’s Own exhibitionists shrouded in Walter Mitty paranoia. "No comment," said Simon Langsford of Tenix Defence, when I asked if his company really had a $2 billion contract to make covert cameras for ASIO, as reported in BRW. "No," said the men at L3 Communications, makers of x-ray technology that "sees" through people’s clothing, when I asked if I could interview them. (In a video demonstration, a woman’s underwear is visible, along with strapped on explosives.) "Not on the record," said Aija Seittenranta from Thales – "defence industry providers" – who handed out toy armoured vehicles. "Not unless we can review what you write," said Mark Rebentrost of VSL Australia, exhibiting explosive-resistant walls.

Alongside the Summit’s Daytona Grand Prix Real Simulation games sat IBM’s "spacio-temporal metadata" software, which tracks a person’s activity through electronic data transactions, and then integrates it with real-time satellite 3D graphic mapping of their movements.

But it was the Summit’s entrance that most rattled me. There, a widescreen monitor broadcast video footage of a van travelling at high speed. The van collided violently with a fat bollard. Hidden beneath the road surface, the hardened-steel bollard, explained Securapost Manager Heng Jiang Cheng, springs up by push-button instruction from a law enforcement agency. On screen, the van had wrapped itself around the bollard like a screwed up piece of aluminium foil. "I wouldn’t like to be a passenger," I said to Heng Jiang. "It would definitely kill you," he replied, telling me that each killer-bollard experiment costs around $30,000 to stage (the company had apparently done three at the time of the Summit).

Then there were the infrared binoculars, ballistic vests, miniature cameras, "round-the-corner" handguns, bomb disposal robots, armoured vehicles, under-vehicle search devices and bio-terror suits. A high-definition infrared camera was so powerful that, pointed toward the floor, it mapped the heat left from people’s footprints on the carpet, minutes after they’d strolled past. And there were $15,000 eyeball grenades, gadgets that can be discreetly rolled into hostage situations to spy on events with high-definition quality. "Just pull the pin and roll," said XTEK‘s Greg Baldwin. Is there a market for these? "There will be."

Some of what I’ve just described first appeared in an Overland report, ‘Guns, Guards and Gates’, published in Spring last year. At that point, Howard had spent $20 billion since September 2001 on the War on Terror. But despite this dizzying sum, Australians were still no safer from the threat of terrorism, according to ASIO.

By the time Kevin Rudd was elected, ASIO’s own budget had almost quadrupled. The Office of National Assessment’s had increased threefold. ASIS, Foreign Affairs, the Federal Police (AFP), the Department of Immigration, AUSAID and Defence had all ballooned with massive budget injections, and a feeding-frenzy of IT companies was gobbling up the WOT’s lucrative rewards.

Still, when Howard’s WOT went flaccid with his election defeat, the industry’s optimism might have also taken a nosedive – and I figured my Overland report was way outdated. After all, the then Opposition Leader rightly guessed WOT reeked of Boy Who Cried Wolf to Australian voters, and his own campaign cannily marginalised it (while maintaining strong commitment to yadda yadda yadda.)

But XTEK – the company at the Summit that forecast a commercial market for its military wares – has publicly listed on the Australian Stock Exchange and continues to expand here, as do most of the companies I’ve mentioned. And the new Rudd Government, instead of downsizing an overzealous AFP, has pledged an extra $200 million to it, in part to increase Federal Police numbers.

Moreover, despite Rudd’s plans to withdraw troops from Iraq, it’s unlikely his Government can undo the security-industrial complex fattened up so obscenely by Howard. Not without a fight. Our now-obese industry is gunning for ever-more support, through its research institutes, Cold Warriors and guns-for-hire.

The Australian
‘s neo-conservative Greg Sheridan, for example, is still fighting the good fight for Howard’s WOT at security industry conferences. The Homeland Security Research Centre, which before the election produced the Voter’s Guide To National Security (a Howard-friendly document dressed in neutral language), is busy issuing a cache of "research papers" which argue for business to invest in security capabilities and for the Federal Government to in turn cough up support.

(One of these papers insists ASIO’s "core functions" will soon be "outsourced to the private sector" and to "intelligence entrepreneurs, not career intelligence officers but innovative practitioners engaged contractually.")

In the last fortnight, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute issued a paper titled ‘Advancing Australian Homeland Security: Leveraging the Private Sector’. It argues that, "The danger of international terrorism has presented new business opportunities for the security industry", and is confident that "concerns over terrorism and stricter security regulations will generate robust demand for services such as investigations, employee screening and close personal protection of executives and families".

The report estimates the security industry in Australia will be worth almost $4.5 billion this year.

The industry continues to benefit from legislation that compels companies and agencies to use its products. It would hardly be politic for Rudd to unwind Howard’s regulatory pressure on business to meet greater national security standards (including the Terrorism (Community Protection) Act 2003). These laws have in turn prompted the corporate sector, particularly transport, to demand that governments put their money where their mouths are. You make us comply, you subsidise us.

Likewise, the security industry pesters corporate Australia to invest in military-level security. An issue of the Australian Defence Business Review carries an article: ‘Bringing military security to the commercial world’. The current issue also celebrates "Ten years of delivery by the Howard-era government of 3 per cent (real) increases in Defence budgets, plus a promise by the new Rudd Labor government to keep the party going…"

Marketing military security to the corporate sector in the name of national interest can be tricky when the public is bored with terrorism, and when risk assessments show minuscule likelihood of public danger. Even during Howard’s regime – and even after he increased the risk of terror when he invaded Iraq – the free-market Centre For Independent Studies pegged the risk to Australians here and overseas as: "about 1 in 333,333. [Chris] Leithner compares this with the rate of death from pesticide poisoning (1 in 200,000), lightning strikes (1 in 30,000), motor vehicle accidents (1 in 60) and disease caused by smoking one packet of cigarettes per day (1 in 6) and concludes that ‘the "terrorist threat" is thus minuscule’."

And so the industry invents novel ways to promote its wares. One is moral spin leveraged by keeping the fear alive. For example, "Low risk, high consequence," is one industry mantra. (To me, this resonates with the Maoist credo adopted by terrorists: "Kill one, scare a thousand".)

Another way is "education" that breaches the no-fly zone between academic research and market push-polling. Most large companies now present workshops and papers at academic conferences and government security forums, with titles like "Detection of concealed threats using sub-THz imaging technologies" and "Datatrace DNA®: A Rapid, Secure, Field-Based System for Tracking & Authentication of Sensitive Materials". At next month’s Security Professionals Congress, private defence contractor Thales will present a session on ways to advance "the interests of security professionals by ensuring [they]have a strong public voice and can self-organise." (Imagine if we substituted "activist citizens" for "security professionals".)

And another marketing method is policy. Where there are security companies rubbing shoulders with politicians and their wonks at these security summits, you can be sure there is lobbying. This worked splendidly in the US, where the Security Industry Association successfully campaigned for the Cybercity Research and Development Act. Here, biometric companies have successfully campaigned for face recognition software at airports, despite these gadgets’ famous and continued failure overseas. Huge national repositories of information like Intellipedia (dubbed ‘Wikipedia for spooks’) are also being peddled in Australia. This would allow our intelligence agencies to track people’s activity and share information about citizens with foreign agencies. Even bugged home washing machines are being developed to spy on Australians. Perhaps this is part of the industry push for "community-wide intelligence capability development".

When I left Canberra, Border Security was Australia’s most popular television program. It remains so. Like those fools on that program, I was intercepted by the folk at the airport. "You can’t go through with that," said an official, pointing at my right breast. "It’s only a cardigan," I snorted back. But I lied – it was my prized lambswool cardigan, painstakingly hand-made by a Melbourne artisan. I’d been on countless interstate flights with it – it had passed with flying colours through all the metal detectors and x-ray gizmos.

Still, the official’s hawke-eye now noticed my cardie had a blanket-pin type clasp, which he insisted I remove. "Can’t," I explained. "See how craftily it’s embedded in the fabric? I’m hardly going to hijack the plane with my cardigan."

Some rancour followed, but it wasn’t his fault – he only worked there. I missed my flight, and was ordered to discard a treasured piece of clothing that cost me two days’ labour. Not such a sob story compared with the ordeals of Daniel Jones, Mohamed Haneef, Jack Thomas, Abdullah Merhi, Mamdouh Habib, Sivarajah Yathavan, Scott Parkin and the many other still-suffering victims of our former federal government’s national security regime. But on the flight home I wondered why airport and retail security technologies had always failed to alert authorities to my cardie-clasp. Now, if Rudd does indeed "keep the party going", there’s a gap in the market.

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