Five things we learned about the Government’s data retention regime in 2014

By Alex Schlotzer, Board Member – Electronic Frontiers Australia

NoMDRRight now the Government is proposing to introduce a mandatory, society-wide regime for the retention of communications data (‘metadata’) for two years. In the latest public hearing into the Government’s proposed legislation a number of important matters were revealed by the Attorney-General and Australia’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

If you weren’t paying attention to the workings of Parliament in the lead up to the festive season then you may have missed a crucial public hearing by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), held on 17th December. This hearing delved into the Government’s proposed mandatory, society-wide data retention regime. It was a crucial hearing because from it we learned five things.

  1. There remains no final definition for the data set and what exactly will or won’t be retained. In fact the hearing revealed continuing confusion about what the Government and the law enforcement and intelligence communities consider to be relevant data.
  2. The Government doesn’t know how much it will cost to implement the Government’s mandatory, society-wide data retention regime, and they won’t be able to make meaningful estimates until they’ve finished defining the data set. What we do have are estimates about the costs to telcos and ISPs for implementing the regime, which the industry has already admitted will be passed on to consumers. So, you’ll end up paying more through higher connectivity charges, through your taxes, or probably both.
  3. The Government and the Australian Federal Police cannot say how many times existing surveillance laws and the subsequent data collected have contributed to intercepting criminal activity or successfully prosecuting suspects.
  4. There were no new details provided about the circumstances under which access to data is granted or what it will be used for. This is particularly interesting given the recent passage of laws enabling the AFP and ASIO to delete, add or change data on computers of people who are not ‘persons of interest’.
  5. It was confirmed that the mandatory, society-wide data retention regime could be utilised to pursue civil legal actions, particularly copyright infringement actions, and admitted that the regime represented a security risk as personal user data would be centrally stored for two years; offering a tempting target for crackers to steal data.

For some, the public hearing confirmed our worst fears about the mandatory, society-wide data retention regime. As coincidence would have it the PJCIS public hearing happened only days after the terrible café siege in Sydney played out with three people losing their lives.

And sadly the siege in Martin Place was used to justify the need for the additional powers that will see Australians treated as suspects, not citizens. The PJCIS heard how the siege could’ve been prevented if Australia’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies had such powers. As it turns out the suspect at the centre of it all was already on numerous watch lists, was well known to NSW and Federal police and has previously been under surveillance.

The same unfortunate situation occurred with the bombers of the Boston Marathon in April 2013 and this week’s attacks in France. In each case the perpetrators were well-known to police and intelligence agencies, who had for whatever reason neglected to watch these individuals closely or had stopped watching them. Having more data about their communications would have made no difference whatsoever as they were not being actively watched. Australian police and intelligence agencies already have extremely broad powers to request information about the communications (and the content) of specified individuals (persons of interest) be retained to support their investigations.

What they want now is for that information to be retained for two years for ALL Australians, even if you’re not being investigated or considered a person of interest. The regime represents a massive invasion of the privacy of all Australians, while subverting a fundamental principle of our legal system – the presumption of innocence – by treating all of us as suspects.

And we the public will get the privilege of paying for it all as telcos and ISPs will pass on the costs of implementing the regime to customers. While the telcos and ISPs have been measuring the possible cost of this poor policy, the Government has yet to work out how much it will cost taxpayers to implement it.

In addition, it was confirmed during the PJCIS public hearing that the laws pave the way for the pursuit of civil legal actions, especially related to copyright infringement, but also potentially unfair dismissal and in many other contexts. This means a new threat to the public who aren’t persons of interest as ordinary Australians get caught up in civil actions because they downloaded some movies from the net.

It’s up to people like us who want to be treated like Citizens, Not Suspects to stand up and demand our Government drop its plans to massively invade the privacy of all Australians. It’s not too late to turn it around.

Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) has been actively working to ensure together we can stop this assault on our rights; and the fundamental principle that underpins our legal system. But as we come into 2015 our time to turn it around is running out. EFA needs your help and support right now.

Take action

Write a submission

We’ve prepared a detailed guide to help you prepare a submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, but time is short – the deadline for submissions is 5pm AEDT on Monday 19th January.

See our Data Retention Submission Guide

Sign our Petition

Join the thousands of concerned Australians who have already signed on to call on the Government to drop its proposed mandatory, society-wide data retention regime: Sign Now.

Contact your MP and Senators

See our helpful guide.

Support Us

This week marks EFA’s 21st birthday. We’ve been fighting against (and often winning) government overreach throughout that time. We survive on membership subscriptions and donations, so if you support our work, please:

DONATE today.

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