Sites of Nationalist Border Controls in the Design-Tech Industry

By Reggie Williamson

The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) is the Australian government body that develops the online delivery of government services. The scale, scope, and support for this work – modelled on the U.K.’s Government Digital Service – has made the DTA an industry-defining employer. As such, the DTA’s employment policies play a significant role in shaping job opportunities and conditions for design-tech workers in Australia. The DTA recently adopted security measures that demonstrate an increasing (re)entrenchment and unabashed positioning of the Australian state’s nationalist and authoritarian political agenda. These include a requirement for all DTA contractors and employees to be Australian citizens, and for personnel to complete a security clearance that seeks to reveal supposedly suspicious or concerning connections, political beliefs, and sexual behaviours. Although these requirements have been in place for Australian public servants for some years, this is significant in that it is now being applied to sub-contractors in the design-tech industry. Amid these developments, design-tech workers in Australia are seeking to organise, putting a spotlight on how those in the design-tech industry might, or might not, confront issues of authoritarian governance and nationalist border controls as they affect workers within and beyond the design-tech industries.

The Trusted Insider Threat

The recent push for new security measures arose from a 2017-18 audit conducted by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO). Then Attorney-General George Brandis began these efforts in 2014 to address what was called a ‘threat posed by trusted insiders’. Two security breaches prompted Brandis’ concerns: the Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning leaks of 2013. Snowden’s leaks revealed global surveillance programs run by telecommunications companies and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance (the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada). Manning’s leaks revealed intelligence campaigns and the details of over 100,000 murders that implicated Western forces following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. By the Attorney-General’s measure, public knowledge of such details constituted a threat to the national interest and warranted a campaign to mitigate ‘insider threats’.

A report by the Attorney-General’s department also suggested that Manning’s motivations for the leaks may have stemmed from Manning’s ‘ideological conflict with the war in Iraq’ and ‘struggles’ with ‘homosexuality and gender identity’. By making this suggestion, the Attorney-General frames those who do not support military conquest or who are not heteronormative as potential threats to be treated with suspicion.

As an agency that is overseeing the government’s information technologies, the DTA is a core site of the Australian state’s concerns. To address these concerns the DTA has implemented a new security clearance process formally referred to as the Protective Security Policy Framework (PSPF), a procedure that is typically processed and granted by the Australian Government Security Vetting Agency (AGSVA) branch of the Department of Defense. In addition to this introduction, the DTA has committed to implementing stronger security measures by 31 July 2018 to align with the ANAO’s suggestions.

The Trusted Insider Threat of the Other

While the ANAO and Attorney-General explicitly focused on the perceived threat of the ‘insider’, the details of the DTA’s new clearance process reveal an approach to ‘national security’ that is centred on xenophobia. The first question in the personal screener asks the applicant:

‘Do you have feelings of loyalty or allegiance to any other country?’

The first question in the DTA security clearance process

What exactly constitutes loyalty or allegiance is not clear to the applicant, but the ANAO report reveals ‘risk factor areas’ to include ‘external loyalties, influences and associations’, where an alleged security concern includes the possession of ‘foreign citizenship’ or ‘contact with foreign nationals’.

The security process also requires referrals from the applicant’s peers. Professional and personal relations (i.e. workplace supervisors and friends) are asked to assess the applicant’s character based on:

  • if they have exhibited ‘extreme political, religious or racial views’
  • if they are loyal to or maintain contact with ‘foreign persons or organisations’
  • if they have exhibited behaviour that might signify financial concerns, including ‘unexplained wealth’
  • examples of any ‘sexual behaviour, preference or activities that may prove embarrassing’ to the applicant
  • their attitudes toward law enforcement

What warrants suspicion in the Australian state’s view is an applicant’s deviations from  whiteness and other normative standards. If suspicions do not already exist, the clearance process primes people – especially employers – to consider such deviations to be suspicious, thus fostering a xenophobic culture. The Attorney-General states that all ‘[t]rusted insiders… have placed personal motivations and needs ahead of their obligations to their employer’ and in doing so invokes the capitalist fear of the working class as an irrational threat to capital that needs to be controlled and disciplined.

How information about the applicant is procured and handled is of additional concern. The applicant does not need to approve referee contributions, and referees are assured that their contributions will not be shared with the applicant:

The information page of the referee report reveals that applicant consent is not required.

This process allows referees to provide any personal suspicions they may have about an applicant without the applicant’s consent, indicating a disregard for consent and privacy.

Many aspects of the vetting procedure are ostensibly centred on enforcing nationalist border controls, a detail that indicates a shift from the rationale of defending against the ‘trusted insider’ to a racialised national threat. This is especially evident in the choice to enforce citizenship requirements despite both Manning and Snowden being citizens of the United States themselves. The Australian state demonstrates such a firm approach to mitigating ‘insider threats’ that non-citizens are seen as too great a risk to even allow ‘in’ in the first place. This reveals a nationalist logic that holds the ‘insider’ threat to come not from an ‘insider’, but from the act of allowing an ‘outsider’ to come ‘in’.

The ‘Other’ – in normative sexual, political, racial, cultural, and religious terms – is framed as the real threat. The result is to exclude and censor those who do not possess Australian citizenship, or who cannot meet the xenophobic standards that the DTA’s new security measures are attempting to reinforce.

The Broader Ideological Situation

The DTA’s adoption of a new clearance process is not an isolated occurrence. It is part of a broader project to normalise and entrench white nationalism and authoritarian governance in Australia and throughout the Western world more generally. We need not look far to spot the patterns. Italy’s far-right Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, is looking to count and expel the Roma population of Italy to put ‘Italians and their safety first’, deeming it unfortunate that Roma with citizenship cannot be deported. Amid its campaign to separate families at the border, the United States formed a new task force to investigate naturalised citizens and revoke citizenship for those they deem to have been wrongly naturalised.

Australia’s culture of xenophobia is not isolated from these developments. Only last year did Donald Trump express delight at Australia’s mandatory detention policies:

Turnbull exchanging border control techniques with Trump in 2017

Indeed, as Angela Mitropoulos has argued, Australia has often set the precedent for how other Western nations have controlled their borders and conducted authoritarian surveillance. Undocumented migrants who arrive in Australia by boat have been placed in mandatory detention since 1992; deployed preemptive policing technologies since 2000; and regularly promotes its techniques of border control to other Western countries just as Abbott did in the U.K., and Turnbull has been doing in the U.S. and Germany. The DTA’s security measures are part of interconnected attempts by Western states to tighten surveillance and border controls.  And, as part of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, we should not understate the global implications of Australia’s experiments.

The Consequences for Design-Tech Workers

The consequences of the DTA’s new security process are immediate. The security clearance has been described as ‘invasive and protracted’, and many design-tech workers have voiced extreme concern about this process and the direction of Australian politics. Several design-tech workers who have contracted to the DTA for years no longer meet these security requirements due only to a lack of citizenship. Other design-tech workers who have recently moved to Australia have been denied opportunities on this same basis.

Rather than confronting this turn, design-tech employers are looking to hire workers with Australian citizenship for the sole purpose of meeting the DTA’s new requirement. This development amounts to an attack on workers by devaluing non-citizens and supporting a logic that presents them as security threats, which adds to the barriers that non-citizens already face. To be complicit in this turn is to support and benefit from nationalist border controls that betray fellow workers while also normalising a project of white supremacy that has global implications.

The Grievances of Design-Tech Workers

Design-tech workers are a key source of labour power that the Australian state depends on to design, build, and remain complicit in border control techniques. As such, design-tech workers are well positioned to either resist this development, or enable it. These factors have implications for how recent efforts to organise design-tech workers will be guided.

Tech workers in the United States have recently unionised to apply collective pressure on Google, Amazon, and Microsoft regarding their involvement with the military, and techniques of authoritarian surveillance and border controls. These developments have caused excitement in the Australian scene for those who are passionate about these issues but currently lack the means to unionise. Now-energised design-tech workers in Australia are searching for opportunities to mobilise in a context where the given means are limited. The Australian Council of Trade Union’s (ACTU) #ChangeTheRules campaign has also caught the attention of design-tech workers, many of whom are looking to ACTU affiliated unions for mobilisation opportunities.

A site of more targeted design-tech unionising is How Might We Do Good (HMWDG), a transnational collective of autonomously organised design-tech workers that has sought to build intersectional solidarity. Recent efforts in Melbourne have also appealed to design-tech grievances with a public meeting. This same group held a joint Melbourne-Sydney forum framed as an opportunity for design-tech workers to ‘Meet our Unions’ by engaging with Australian union representatives.

Where HMWDG has sought to unionise on an autonomous basis, the efforts in Melbourne will bridge gaps between the design-tech industry and Australian unions. This has implications for how the power and focus of design-tech organising will be guided. As such, it is a matter of great importance to understand what is at stake if this bridge is made.

Nationalist Entanglements: The Directions of Design-Tech Unionising

It is clear to many that detention centres and military warfare are sites of xenophobic and nationalist conduct. More often overlooked, however, is that these very industries are in fact supported rather than opposed by Australian unions. While the issue of union support for the detention industry has previously been detailed and challenged by the xBorder network, it is worth examining how complicity on this front is already being incorporated into efforts at organising design-tech workers.

The Melbourne-Sydney forum included the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU), Professionals Australia (PA), and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). The ways that these unions are complicit in nationalist practices is clear. The AMWU has opposed allowing foreign workers into Australia suggesting that it is against the national interest, and are on a superannuation board that has refused to stop investing in detention centres. Professionals Australia represents military scientists and engineers, promotes the construction of military technologies for nationalist interests, and upholds ‘Australia first’ rhetoric through its opposition to 457 visas. The MEAA were also implicated in detention financing via the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors and Media Super. Each of these unions are affiliated with the ACTU and as such they are all complicit in nationalism through their support for the #ChangeTheRules campaign, which holds a policy position stating that ‘the interest of local workers must be paramount’.

The ACTU’s policy on migrant workers

By providing a platform for these unions to engage with design-tech workers, the Melbourne-Sydney union forum gives the ACTU network the opportunity to tailor their appeal to design-tech workers, and sets up unions to absorb design-tech workers into existing union power structures that are complicit in the very kinds of issues that many design-tech workers oppose. There is also the potential to further embolden ‘Australia first’ policies by gaining access to design-tech workers who agree with such efforts.

The newly deployed security measures of the DTA and the complicity of ACTU associated unions are not minor details that can be brushed aside in a pursuit of worker power. Such details are the meshwork within which grander projects of white supremacy are made possible. Indeed, for those who are directly affected, these are not minor details at all. The changes to the DTA’s security process alone accentuate the already-existing rates of exploitation experienced by design-tech workers, especially those who are already affected by racist, sexist, and homophobic structures. Such a development is not possible without large scale complicity, which is why every manifestation of nationalistic border controls must be confronted and refused.

To leverage the power of nationalist unions is not a path to genuine class struggle. To build ‘worker’ power in conjunction with Australian unions first, with a view to confront nationalism ‘later’, is to consider the mobilisation of systems of oppression to be an incidental occurrence. As Ijeoma Oluo says of such labour movement rhetoric, these strategies ‘move everybody forward but in the exact same place, with the exact same hierarchy, and the exact same oppressions.’ The power structures of Australian unions are sites of complicity in, not resistance to, the very issues that design-tech workers seek to confront. Design-tech workers are in a position to refuse these structures of exploitation and oppression within their own efforts to organise. The next moments of design-tech organising will reveal who is prepared to take these issues seriously.

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Sites of Nationalist Border Controls in the Design-Tech Industry