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‘Inconceivable’: why has Australia’s history been left to rot? | National Archives

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Historians are calling it an international embarrassment for Australia and saying it is “inconceivable that it has come to this”, as they preemptively mourn the loss of “irreplaceable national history”.

The National Archives of Australia doesn’t often make headlines, but when it does, it’s rarely good news.

Last year, it famously lost a years-long legal battle to keep secret the Palace letters – a trove of correspondence between Australia’s governor-general and the Queen’s private secretary in the lead up to the dismissal of Australia’s then prime minister, Gough Whitlam, in 1975.

As the institution – which is required by legislation to preserve records from Australian government agencies – was licking its financial wounds from the costly legal battle, it was dealt a further blow in this month’s federal budget, which largely ignored a “digital cliff” the archives was facing.

Last week, it was revealed the archives had resorted to launching a crowdfunding site in a last ditch attempt to raise tens of millions of dollars to digitise disintegrating historical materials.

The crowdfunding push has outraged Australia’s archivists and historians, and raised questions about the value Australia places on its national history.

A digital cliff

In March, an internal review of the archives found it was failing to meet its legal obligations due to underfunding. The Tune review found there was 361km of at-risk audio-visual material – including magnetic tape, cellulose acetate subject to vinegar syndrome, and film negatives – some of which will be beyond recovery as early as 2025. That figure has since grown to 384km.

At the archives’ current digitisation rate of 0.26km per year, it would take 1,400 years and $5.2b to digitise the entire collection.

Instead, the review proposed a $67.7m seven-year initiative to urgently digitise what it deemed the highest priority records. Despite desperate pleas from the archives in the weeks before the budget, it did not receive the required injection.

Now at risk of being lost are video recordings of early Australian Antarctic exploration, Asio’s spy surveillance footage, audio recordings from the royal commission into the Stolen Generation and hearings of the high court native title tribunal, as well as prime minister John Curtin’s wartime speeches.

Damaged material from the national Archive.
Damaged material from the National Archives. Photograph: National Archive of Australia

Michelle Arrow, an associate professor of modern history at Macquarie University, is scathing of government funding for the archive, as well as what she believes is the institution’s lack of planning decisions in recent years.

“This should be an international embarrassment for Australia,” she said. “Normally the public service isn’t meant to make a plea like this.

“If you think about the scale of the task, it’s still huge. They’re having to do this because there has been systematic funding issues for these institutions, but the digital cliff has been looming for the archives for many years.”

Arrow noted the archive ramped up its campaign for more funds to digitise this year. In 2015, the National Film and Sound Archives launched its Deadline 2025 discussion paper, and successfully lobbied for extra funding to digitise key collections.

While Arrow understands the impossibility of digitising all at-risk records, she is concerned that “irreplaceable national history” could still be lost even if the $67.7m can be raised for the prioritisation digitisation plan, due to the masses of departmental materials dumped on the archives by government agencies.

“We just don’t know what material there is there, it’s not all in their computer catalog. I suspect most of this stuff, we’re never going to know what we’ve lost, and that’s troubling.”

She said the Archives had become known for a reliance on “a family historian model”, charging up to $250 to digitise one document in a file in the hope it might contain relevant family history.

However this prioritises certain material being digitised, and along with the crowd funding push, Arrow says this risks important records being lost.

“Often donors have a vested interest in maintaining certain things and not others … We don’t know what researchers might want to know in the future.”

A disintegrating vinyl record.
A disintegrating vinyl record. Photograph: National Archive of Australia

Arrow says this lack of searchability for files has resulted in lengthy requests to retrieve materials, recalling a failed pursuit of hers to access letters sent to Whitlam’s women’s adviser, Elizabeth Reid.

“Reid was the first women’s advisor to a national leader anywhere in the world. We know she received many letters, and we know they’re there in the archives somewhere. I haven’t been able to find them, hopefully someone will find them someday.”

‘A problem with priorities’

Jenny Hocking, a professor of history at Monash University’s National Centre for Australia Studies, led the legal battle which forced the archives to release the Palace letters.

She believes the archives’ determination to keeping the Palace letters protected has come at the expense of digitisation.

“For them to have gone to such lengths to keep those letters away from the public is extraordinary, especially now that the cost was far greater than the roughly $1m in their legal fees, it’s closer to $2m as they had to pay mine.”

The Tune review found that around $900,000 each year of the archives’ capital budget of $6m is devoted to digitisation.

The archives’ woes are ‘tremendously embarrassing’, historian Jenny Hocking says.
The archives’ woes are ‘tremendously embarrassing’, historian Jenny Hocking says. Photograph: National Archive of Australia

“It’s an unedifying spectacle, seeing them resort to crowdfunding following the legal battle. Those two things don’t sit well,” said Hocking, who has authored a book about her legal battle and the contents of the letters.

“I have a huge respect for the archives, and it is deeply troubling to see this. I still can’t believe it, it’s almost inconceivable that it has come to this.”

Another questionable choice made by the archives, in Hocking’s mind, is the decision to enter into a $10m four-year contract to digitise war records. She believes other Commonwealth institutions, such as the National Film and Sound Archives, or the War Memorial, which has been awarded $500m in federal funds for a redevelopment, should share the digitisation burden.

“You don’t suddenly face a $67.7m cliff overnight. The problem is not with the legislation, what they’re required to do, it’s a problem with priorities.

“It’s tremendously embarrassing, it’s an international disgrace that our National Archives is resorting to passing the hat around to protect $67m of material. It’s just impossible to raise that all via crowdfunding, and they and the government know that,” Hocking said.

Digital future

Nicola Laurent, president of the Australian Society of Archivists, believes the National Archives’ current financial woes should trigger a discussion about how departmental material is archived.

The National Archives is an institutional member of the society, but it also includes university archives and archivists at private schools.

Laurent is disappointed at the need to crowdfund, and links it to the approach of charging high fees to anyone seeking to retrieve and digitise a document.

“It’s still the people having to fund the archives in a way that doesn’t seem appropriate,” she said.

She wants to see legislative change to increase access to the archives, as well as a longer term consideration about how materials are collected from departments.

“Digital preservation is almost always harder than paper based preservation, because formats change, and you have to check in, and change file formats, and make sure files aren’t corrupting.

“It’s the legislative method that requires file-by-file release that means so much doesn’t become accessible.

“Disposal needs to be happening at a greater level by the agencies, they’re giving over such large amounts and there’s no good mechanism for it as the legislation dictates what the archives must keep.”

Laurent noted a figure that government agencies created 2986 terabytes of digital records in 2019 and 92,966 shelf metres of physical records.

Arrow says more needs to be culled from records before the archives receives them and can’t dispose of them.

“Sometimes you’ll open a file and it has four copies of one letter,” Arrow said.

Attorney general Michaelia Cash, whose portfolio is responsible for the archives, has previously said the government will respond to the Tune review later this year.

The Guardian requested an interview with Fricker or another member of the National Archives. A spokeswoman said no one was available.

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UK competition watchdog unveils advice for antivirus firms • The Register

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The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has unveiled compliance principles to curb locally some of the sharper auto-renewal practices of antivirus software firms.

The move follows the watchdog baring its teeth at McAfee and Norton over the issue of automatically renewing contracts.

The CMA took exception to auto-renewal contracts for antivirus software that customers in the UK signed up for and found difficult to cancel. Refunds and clearer pricing information (including making sure consumers were aware that year two could well end up considerably costlier than the first) were the order of the day.

Today’s principles build on that work, and are aimed at helping antivirus companies toe the line where UK consumer law is concerned. They are a bit more detailed than a simple “stop being horrid.”

The focus remains on auto-renewing contracts, where a customer signs up for a fixed period, then is charged again for subsequent periods. The CMA acknowledges that such arrangements are convenient, but they risk the consumer being locked into an agreement they no longer want or that they get stung with higher fees at renewal time.

While the principles are intended to be helpful, lurking in the background is consumer law and the threat of a potential trip to court for vendors stepping out of line.

First up comes a requirement to make sure customers are informed about auto-renewal, rather than hiding the detail in an End User Licence Agreement (EULA) or burying it in hard-to-read text through which a user must scroll.

Price claims must be “accurate” and “not mislead your customers” – so only show discounts against the normal price. It must also be possible to turn off the auto-renew easily, keep auto-renew turned off once it is off and, if on, make sure customers are reminded in good time that an auto-renew will happen.

Getting a refund must be easier and customers should be able to change their mind when auto-renewal happens. If the customer has stopped using the product, safeguards are needed around auto-renewal.

The last principle could pose a few challenges – how does a vendor become aware that a customer is not using its product? The suggestion from the CMA is to check if software updates are being received rather than simply charging users year after year.

The Register contacted McAfee and Norton for their thoughts on the principles, and will update should the companies respond. ®

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Grocery start-up Gorillas raises nearly $1bn in round led by Delivery Hero

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Just a few months after hitting unicorn status, Gorillas has raised another major round of funding from big-name investors.

German start-up Gorillas has raised nearly $1bn to expand its on-demand grocery delivery business.

The Series C funding round was led by Delivery Hero, the German food and grocery delivery giant that recently took a stake in Deliveroo.

Gorillas also received backing from existing investors including Coatue Management, DST Global and Tencent, as well as new investors G Squared, Alanda Capital, Macquarie Capital, MSA Capital and Thrive Capital.

The fresh funding comes just a few months after the company’s $290m Series B, which brought its valuation to more than $1bn.

Gorillas was founded in Berlin in 2020 by Kağan Sümer and Jörg Kattner, promising grocery deliveries in as little as 10 minutes.

It now operates more than 180 warehouses and has expanded to more than 55 cities in nine countries, including Amsterdam, London, Paris, Madrid, New York and Munich.

The company plans to use the latest funding for its next phase of development. This includes reinforcing its footprint in existing markets and investing in operations, technology and marketing.

“The size of today’s funding round by an extraordinary investment consortium underscores the tremendous market potential that lies ahead of us,” said Sümer, who is CEO of the start-up.

“With Delivery Hero, we have chosen a strong strategic support that is deeply rooted in the global delivery market, and is renowned for having unique experience in sustainably scaling a German company internationally.”

On-demand grocery delivery is a growing area in Europe that’s attracting investor attention.

Swedish start-up Kavall raised $5.8m in August, Czech player Rohlik hit unicorn status after its €100m Series C round in July, and Spain’s Glovo secured a €450m Series F round in April to expand in the grocery market.

Gorillas differentiates itself from other players in the market, such as Deliveroo, by employing its delivery drivers rather than relying on gig workers.

However, as the start-up has scaled rapidly over the past year, it has seen delivery workers protest over working conditions and pay, and been put under the spotlight for its treatment of employees.

Don’t miss out on the knowledge you need to succeed. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of need-to-know sci-tech news.

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ICO to step in after schools use facial recognition to speed up lunch queue | Facial recognition

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The Information Commissioner’s Office is to intervene over concerns about the use of facial recognition technology on pupils queueing for lunch in school canteens in the UK.

Nine schools in North Ayrshire began taking payments for school lunches this week by scanning the faces of their pupils, according to a report in the Financial Times. More schools are expected to follow.

The ICO, an independent body set up to uphold information rights in the UK, said it would be contacting North Ayrshire council about the move and urged a “less intrusive” approach where possible.

An ICO spokesperson said organisations using facial recognition technology must comply with data protection law before, during and after its use, adding: “Data protection law provides additional protections for children, and organisations need to carefully consider the necessity and proportionality of collecting biometric data before they do so.

“Organisations should consider using a different approach if the same goal can be achieved in a less intrusive manner. We are aware of the introduction, and will be making inquiries with North Ayrshire council.”

The company supplying the technology claimed it was more Covid-secure than other systems, as it was cashless and contactless, and sped up the lunch queue, cutting the time spent on each transaction to five seconds.

Other types of biometric systems, principally fingerprint scanners, have been used in schools in the UK for years, but campaigners say the use of facial recognition technology is unnecessary.

Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch, told the Guardian the campaign group had written to schools using facial recognition systems, setting out their concerns and urging them to stop immediately.

“No child should have to go through border-style identity checks just to get a school meal,” she said. “We are supposed to live in a democracy, not a security state.

“This is highly sensitive, personal data that children should be taught to protect, not to give away on a whim. This biometrics company has refused to disclose who else children’s personal information could be shared with and there are some red flags here for us.”

The technology is being installed in schools in the UK by a company called CRB Cunninghams. David Swanston, its managing director, told the FT: “It’s the fastest way of recognising someone at the till. In a secondary school you have around about a 25-minute period to serve potentially 1,000 pupils. So we need fast throughput at the point of sale.”

Live facial recognition, technology that scans crowds to identify faces, has been challenged by civil rights campaigners because of concerns about consent. CRB Cunninghams said the system being installed in UK schools was different – parents had to give explicit consent and cameras check against encrypted faceprint templates stored on school servers.

A spokesperson for North Ayrshire council said its catering system contracts were coming to a natural end, allowing the introduction of new IT “which makes our service more efficient and enhances the pupil experience using innovative technology”.

They added: “Given the ongoing risks associated with Covid-19, the council is keen to have contactless identification as this provides a safer environment for both pupils and staff. Facial recognition has been assessed as the optimal solution that will meet all our requirements.”

The council said 97% of children or their parents had given consent for the new system.

A Scottish government spokesperson said that local authorities, as data controllers, had a duty to comply with general data protection regulations and that schools must by law adhere to strict guidelines on how they collect, store, record and share personal data.

Hayley Dunn, a business leadership specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “There would need to be strict privacy and data protection controls on any companies offering this technology.

“Leaders would also have legitimate concerns about the potential for cyber ransomware attacks and the importance of storing information securely, which they would need reassurances around before implementing any new technology.”

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