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Byron Shire
February 8, 2023

Govt priorities now include snooping on public’s internet, phone records

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Greens senator Scott Ludlam.
Greens senator Scott Ludlum.

Hans Lovejoy

In an attempt to fulfil the federal government’s Orwellian plans to control and survey the masses, a data retention bill is now before parliament and could soon become law.

It’s called the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014.

And we should presumably accept the loss of freedoms and privacy, because spooks say metadata is crucial to solving crimes and the current laws need to be updated.

But a cursory internet search of this bill will reveal that it’s raised serious alarms with journalists and anyone who values free speech, critical thinking and accountable governance.

Media Watch (ABC TV) recently gave examples of how, under current legislation, whistleblowers and journalists have been the target of spooks operating on behalf of the government, or govcorp.

If govcorp is embarrassed, it seems you will be targeted.

It’s using the national security red herring to limit the exposure of public corruption and incompetence, say opponents.

Coerce ISPs

The idea is to coerce all internet service providers (ISPs) to collect your metadata for two years to then hand over to the government.

It’s also called data mining, and US tech companies such as Google and Apple have it down to a fine art.

As Australia is also one of the biggest downloaders, the bill has possible ramifications for those who enjoy Game of Thrones and anything else that is unavailable here.

One of the dissenting voices against mass surveillance is Greens senator Scott Ludlum, who was in town last week to launch the NSW Greens’ election bid.

Q: So will this scheme cost $400m to implement?

‘$400 million is a guess – the government won’t release the costings. Some in the industry say it will be higher or lower.

‘Basically it’s equipment installation and back-end software systems to collect the new material and then hand it over to the government and state where it can be used as evidence.

‘I’m uncomfortable in describing this a national security bill because it’s so much broader than that. Some of the interests that are pushing it the hardest have nothing to do with national security.’

Q: Apparently there are major loopholes with this – business accounts with ISPs would be exempt, for example. There are technical ways of circumventing this too. How will that play out?

‘The data retention scheme isn’t designed to know who you were emailing. The government are trapped either way. This is either unworkable or ineffective – and they had to choose, so they went with ineffective.

‘They can’t force Google, Facebook or Twitter or any instant messaging service to open their books.

‘But if you use a Bigpond, iiNet or an Internode account, you will be within scope and they will know who you are sending emails to.

‘And if you use a free webmail service it won’t be in scope. It’s that dopey.

‘Then if you add VPN services or [web browser] TOR, or public key encrypted cryptography… if people take basic precautions then they would be completely out of scope.’

Metadata is a digital footprint which can reveal information such as the time, length and number of a phone call you made or received. It also includes the footprint of all text messages and emails, and can be a record of your web history and GPS phone coordinates.

Q: Is there evidence that this works overseas?

‘There’s evidence that these types of laws make no difference at all. I’ve been begging the attorney-general’s office for months to provide us with evidence that it will work and they just come back with anecdotes.

‘Evidence from the panel that US president Obama put together which gave evidence to the senate justice committee in early 2014 effectively said there was no instance where they could discover where indiscriminate data retention had prevented terrorism.

‘Same in Germany, but more in the law enforcement context. It made no difference to the rate of crime clearance.

‘It’s a surprise that the debate with this has progressed so far in the absence of any evidence. This bill was meant to clear the House of Reps on Wednesday or Thursday. It wasn’t debated. But I think it’s possible anything could happen. If Abbott is kicked out, he’ll take Brandis down with him. And I don’t know if Turnbull wants, with his first act as prime minister, to pass a mass surveillance scheme.

‘He loathes Brandis…

‘This was introduced into the house by Turnbull which is interesting. They’re trying to get Brandis out of the media because he’s such a disaster. There were rumours last week that Brandis has been instructed by the prime minister’s office not to conduct any interviews.

‘The idea that they would effectively abolish national security journalism or any kind of investigative journalism by making it very difficult to communicate with sources is extraordinarily reckless.’

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