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February 5, 2023

Privacy ends October 13, 2015

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By Phillip Frazer

The Abbott government’s new law on collecting the country’s ‘metadata’ from all of our communications devices will go into effect next month.

The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2015 requires that every one of the 400 Australian telcos and ISPs keep a record – not a recording – of every phone call, text, email, and download you make. For phone calls, this ‘metadata’ includes the number called, duration of the call, and the rough location you called or texted from.

This metadata must be stored for two years and will be accessible to more than 20 Australian government agencies, from ASIO through every federal and state police force and corruption commission, and to any other agency that attorney-general George Brandis nominates.

For phone calls, this includes VOIP and 800 numbers, even missed calls.

No warrants, $2 million fines 

Email data is supposedly limited to whom you emailed, when, and the size of each attachment. Email has one loophole – that data will only be tracked and kept if you’re using an Australian provider – Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail are exempt – allegedly, and for now.

Our intelligence and police agents can access all this on demand, any time without a warrant and telcos and ISPs face fines up to $2 million for failure to cough up.

Any search of your data must be a state secret forever, and anyone who tells you you’ve been searched faces jail.

There is no requirement that ISPs or phone companies keep the IP addresses of websites you visit, but in Quentin Dempster’s excellent Sydney Morning Herald article last Saturday, Fairfax tech editor Ben Grubb says there’ll probably be a record of every website you look at, because it’s too hard to separate that one vital piece from the mandated metadata.

Additionally the internet corporations will be allowed to keep those records of our web-browsing.

As Dempster points out, all these track-and-keep rules zoomed through parliament, herded by Attorney-General Brandis with token amendments from Labor. The only serious resistance was from the Greens and independents.

Our new laws go further than even the US laws, which allow this secret spying on citizens only when it’s specifically about preventing acts of terrorism. Israel, where deadly conflict is always imminent, has no metadata retention laws, because their experts reckon it wouldn’t do much to stop violent acts.

Similar to China

Only China has a surveillance regimen as broad as the one passed by our parliament.

All this data trawling is already happening here, mostly to nail corruption and criminality. In 2013–14, Dempster reports 330,000 requests were made by Australian law enforcement agencies. To my knowledge, none was refused.

Meanwhile, in the US, two separate government agencies have recently announced that all this metadata madness has not stopped a single terrorist attack.

Metadata might save lives if the local cops use it to track an identified abuser who’s messaging threats of violence to the kid, but it’s unlikely to catch those very occasional lone gunmen waving a home-made terror flag just when they’re about to open fire.

No costs presented by federal govt

It’s obvious to most of the world that this is not worth sacrificing our privacy for – and it’s not worth the hundreds of millions of dollars it will cost.

In any event, no estimates of the costs have been presented by our ruling authoritarians.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, folks. No-one will be allowed to read your emails in real time or listen to your phone calls, so the law says, unless they get a warrant… but telling a court there are certain patterns in your metadata could easily result in the issuance of such a warrant – and you won’t know because all those warrants are, and will remain, top secret.

Every provider must be willing and able to hand over your data when shown a warrant, but many will wind up contracting out these new obligations to new, specialist companies.

These companies are being formed as you read this.

In other words, corporates will get your data too. To allay rampant paranoia, the government has a new ‘communications access coordinator’, who will approve these consultants.

When Demster tried to question Brandis’s inaugural access coordinator, she told him she was, ‘not authorised to speak to Fairfax Media.’

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