Words by: Smoko Henderson
Image credit: APH
Metadata. It’s one of the hottest words of the year so far, dangling on the tips of countless moving tongues narrating for us our nightly broadcasts, panels, radio commentaries, editorials, question and answer forums; workplace, family, and University discussions. Depending on who you ask, data retention laws are either evidence of the Australian government’s move towards a totalitarian nation, or the sign of a good Government adapting to a rapidly changing world. The probable truth is it’s both, but that’s a different article.
I received word from the powers that be at Rotunda Media that popular West Australian Greens senator Scott Ludlam would be hosting an event at the Rosemount Hotel. The event, called ‘Cryptoparty’ promised via its Facebook page that Mr. Ludlam would discuss upcoming data retention laws. Attendees on the night were to be informed how they can evade potentially invasive practices carried out using their their data.
Upon receiving the news about CryptoParty, I was excited. I knew that The Greens had been running a campaign staunchly against data retention laws since their entrance into the public awareness in early-mid 2013. In fact, most of you reading this are probably well aware of Scott Ludlam already. He effectively established himself as the representative voice of Gen Y last year, though arguably only in the minds of those 18-25 and of the left wing persuasion. The Greens’ environmental policies have always seen them favoured by any young Australian who was raised by a vaguely hippy parent – myself included.
Now, and in an oddly short timeframe – by which I mean the Greens largely had no association with anything to do with electronic data in 2012 – the pro-environmental party have taken a stake in the fight against an unprecedented measure of power over communications to be held by the Australian government. Granted, these measures will yield unpredictable results for the Australian people, media industry and courts. The CryptoParty promised attendees the chance to take back their power from a retention regime.
“Nothing we are teaching here tonight is illegal…” Scott Ludlam addressed the crowd about twenty minutes after my arrival to the Rosemount. “These tools can protect you from hackers, criminals and – well resourced adversaries”.
Let’s not beat around a bush for no good reason – the well resourced adversaries in question are, obviously, the collective institutions belonging to the Australian Government – particularly the ACMA, ASIO, and the Australian Federal Police. Ludlam quickly made mention of ASIO intelligence officers being amongst the crowd that night.
But let’s take a step back.
There was another element to my interest: Scott Ludlam was rumoured to be DJing. He did the same thing in April last year at Amplifier in Perth, much to the chagrin of senior political analysts. About two days before the CryptoParty, the Guardian ran a piece on Scott Ludlam and The Greens’ latest promotional campaign video, in which a mashup of footage taken from various gigs plays as the Greens logo repeatedly flashes up on screen fast enough to be considered subliminal. The Guardian lead asked of Scott Ludlam: “Effortlessly cool or try-hard fool?”
I went through some amount of stress before my arrival. The e-mail I received for the event informed me that I would need to show digital e-tickets at the door to enter. My phone is fairly useless, and would not let me download the app I needed to show the tickets. Thinking that the existence of this very article hinged on my ability to be charming enough to get past whoever was guarding the door, I amped myself up as I entered the Rosemount, completely ticketless.
I knew what was waiting just inside: CryptoParty. Scott Ludlam. A world of political intrigue, waiting to be reported. But also, potential failure. Denial. My disconnection from the world of smartphones rendering me marginalised, powerless. I brandished my phone in my hand and prepared myself for the most passionate anti-samsung monologue of my life. Now facing the interior entrance to the Rosemount, the girl on door looked at me. Our eyes met. This was it, the crucial moment. My heart rate rose. I got closer. I could start to see the tops of heads in the crowd within, the murmur of conversation grew louder. She looked at the phone in my hand as I was getting closer still. Three metres. There it was in her eyes, the look of suspicion. So close now, two metres. She is still staring. One metre. Here we go, this is it, I took in a deep breath, and – walked right past her.
If this experience is anything to go on, it seems that e-tickets are a lot like Fetch – it just isn’t going to happen.
When Scott Ludlam originally hit up Amps and DJ’d, I took up my role as a scathing writer and scathed him for his poor integrity. I thought it was only fair that I actually attended a set thrown by DJ Ludz himself this time, but more importantly than my own integrity, I was on a mission to let the people of Perth know how well the man can mix his bangers.
He didn’t DJ.
I had been expecting to walk into a subversive atmosphere dripping with mystique populated by the young adults of Perth. I was expecting Scott Ludlam on stage, fiddling with the cords to his decks, waiting for the room to fill up before speaking. I was expecting to be surrounded by like minded people between 18 and 25, keenly paying attention, note taking devices in hand.
This isn’t what I got.
Instead, I walked into a crowd of about 200 people in their mid-to-late forties, humming with the quiet hustle of an art gallery opening.
The only young people there were the bar staff and the workers for various non profits whom had information tables set up. On stage, one of the dudes from RTR’s Ambient Zone quietly bobbed away to his headphones as he worked the sound deck in front of him. He had a few early twenties mates there. From the amplifiers, friendly and slow-tempo deep bass played at a level so respectable it was akin to elevator music. Behind him, a pull-down projection sheet with the words ‘CryptoParty’ stood center-stage.
At 7.28PM, as the crowd buzz grew stronger when Scott Ludlam entered the room and began to mingle, a smoke machine on stage began to puff out haze. At the same time, LED lights began to flash. Scott Ludlam looked nervous; executing deliberate, perfected handshakes on the floor. He spoke to a man who would later be on stage, and with an overly excited man in his early twenties; a member of an info table closeby. I stood some small number of metres away, regarding Mr. Ludlam with a look of grave importance on my face, because that felt like the right thing to do for some reason.
At 7.29 – if that – the smoke machine and LEDs abruptly stopped. The mature aged crowd responded to the end of the light show with the same apathy they had welcomed it with. A minute later, Scott got on stage, to a round of muffled clapping.
I wish that CrypoParty was an event full of young, switched-on minds, bustling with the quiet hum of activism and protest. I wish it was a place in space and time where like minded young people could congregate and network during an educational conference regarding our nation’s changing intelligence operations and their implications for us as a whole, but it wasn’t.
I don’t really know what to make of it. A media company in Perth recently ran an online promotional campaign in which they advertised their content with one slogan that stuck with me:
“For people who don’t give a [f]uck about Data Retention.”
While I wish it wasn’t the case, if CryptoParty is anything to go on, their social media manager is probably batting in the right field.
To put it bluntly, CryptoParty was kind of a cringefest. The Ambient Zone DJs received the most applause out of anyone who spoke, including Ludlam and the corresponding on-stage guests. Ludlam did not help himself by sticking to a script very obviously intended for a younger crowd, a litany of swear words and all. “You all came…that’s fucking great”, he said for his opener. When he asked who had been to a CryptoParty before, I counted 3 people in the room who put their hand up. None of them were young people either. Quickly, CryptoParty started to feel a lot like its antithesis. Ludlam apologised to the crowd for the passing of metadata laws, scathed the Labor party for not contesting them enough and expressed sorrow for not getting the votes needed to prevent the retention laws from passing.
He also lambasted the Liberal party – “remember Liberalism?”, to which the mature crowd all genuinely laughed, which was pretty worrying. “Remember that word?…it’s still on their website”. More laughs. The media industry were not spared by Ludlam either, in the first five minutes of him being on stage. “[When] the media industry realised [data retention] affected them…they put up a late but effective campaign to protect themselves”, he told the crowd. “Essentially, if you don’t get paid, you don’t get protected, which I think is bullshit” he summarized, which – to be honest, is a pretty fair assessment.
After the campaign-type spiel was over, discourse shifted to a semi-zealot tone when Ludlam told the crowd that CrypoParty was about taking agency and power back from organisations who have jurisdiction over our electronic communication records. “We can take that power back” Scott Ludlam told a crowd of middle-aged Australians with wine in hand and glasses perched on the ends of their noses. In response to these statements of defiance, the patrons of the Rosemount all waited for somebody else to politely applause. The silence was strangling.
The CryptoParty was punctuated by one thing: the total absence of the demographic it was intended for. If young people in Perth care about data retention, the CryptoParty was absolutely not the place to find them. Perhaps in a city rife with unemployment for the 18-25 demographic, amidst a collective consciousness unhappy with the Australian government and low in morale, there is no room for added concern regarding the inaccessible concept of data retention. And perhaps this is founded.
Maybe data retention will effectively take a sustainable step in preventing domestic terrorism. Maybe it will eventually equate to just another forgettable piece of legislation leading to a few more yearly arrests. In either case, it would then be the truth that there is in fact no need to worry, and no need to protest. Perhaps our obsession with dystopian sci-fi like 1984, and overexposure to conspiracies promulgated by popular figures like Russel Brand, prevents us as a culture from looking at the situation realistically.
Eventually, Ludlam got off stage and two guest speakers replaced him, both of them running individual workshops. It quickly became obvious that a lot of the workshop material was probably about to be desperately lost on the crowd that showed up, and on the whole, eventually providing nothing more than a reiteration on the importance of a strong and case-sensitive password. Full disclosure: I left, not attending either of the workshops. While some murmurs of the Tor network made it through the microphone, I can’t imagine that any lengthy discussion was upheld.
So what does all of this say? Honestly, by the looks of things, our parents care more about data retention than we do. Or perhaps a lot of people really do just feel drawn towards Scott Ludlam’s hair. On the whole though, I do not want to be overly critical. This was a free event with the support of local volunteer organisations and for that the CrypoParty can be praised for taking progressive and practical steps in the name of its ideology. And, wanting not to commit the crime of hypocrisy, I have to commend the entire team’s efforts for going at length to organise the open dissemination of knowledge amongst the people. Doing so is in the name of true governmental transparency and true democratic process. For this, I cannot fault or criticise Mr. Ludlam, or the Greens at large, for their involvement with CryptoParty, or the event as a whole. What was particularly impressive was the discussion of arrests and legislation within Western Australia regarding individuals and their data – albeit brief – so it’s inaccurate to suggest that one would take nothing substantial away from the event.
However, if data retention laws do in fact lower the quality of life and freedom, it may only be too late that young Australians begin to grin and bear the drudgery of Australian political culture in order to truly act and pay attention.