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Australia pushes data retention law, despite using metadata at twice the UK level

Australia surveillanceBy Simon Davies

Earlier this week, Australia’s Attorney General, George Brandis, spectacularly proved that a minute can be an eternity in politics. Or – more precisely – he proved that eight minutes and twenty four seconds can be an eternity.

During an interview on Sky television, Brandis set out to defend his government’s plan to introduce ”emergency” fast-track data retention legislation which authorities intended to circumvent parliamentary and public scrutiny. The interview was an utter embarrassment to Brandis and the government.

The proposed legislation will enforce a requirement on providers to store data relating to communications – the “who, when and where” information that reveals an almost complete communications profile of users. This information is sometimes known as “metadata”, as opposed to the “content” data within the body of emails and calls.

Brandis: Just slightly unaware of that "Internet" thing

Brandis: Just slightly unaware of that “Internet” thing

There has been substantial coverage of this issue in Australia’s media, but one aspect that has been largely overlooked is the fact that use of metadata by Australian authorities is already out of control, often eclipsing other countries several fold.

UK authorities, for example, are often criticized over excessive exploitation of this sensitive information. Each year more than half a million requests are made for communications data, greater than almost all EU countries.

The figure (Word doc) for Australia is substantially greater. In 2012/2013 authorities made almost 313,000 requests for metadata, an increase of more than ten percent over the previous year. Per capita, this represents more than double the already controversial British figure. Any data retention regime will almost certainly accelerate the demand for communications data.

Australia’s measure, by no coincidence, is almost identical to the ”emergency” fast-track data retention legislation that the UK government rammed through parliament during its last sitting days in July. Britain is anxious to export its surveillance policies throughout Europe and the Commonwealth, and has done so frequently.

Brandis was handed the task of selling the measure to a skeptical public. First, there was the matter of the “emergency”. The UK had used the incredible excuse of a European court decision, which it claimed could result in crucial communications metadata being discarded by comms providers. Australian authorities had no such grounds, so they murmured something about the conflict in Syria, then said no more on the subject.

In 2012/2013 Australian authorities made almost 313,000 requests for metadata, an increase of more than ten percent over the previous year. Per capita, this represents more than double the already controversial British figure. Any data retention regime will almost certainly accelerate the demand for communications data.

In the end, Brandis kept away from the matter of Syria – or even home-grown threats – and chose to silence concerns that the new measures would become a tool for mass surveillance. This would be no easy task, chiefly because it required an explanation of Metadata.

It was like sending Macaulay Culkin to an Oxford Union debate. Brandis stumbled from one nadir to another as his utter ignorance of the Internet unfurled before the nation.

The Attorney General began by explaining that metadata was just like the name and address you put on an envelope, rather than the actual contents of the envelope. Now in normal events I would argue that a politician who likens metadata to a piece of snail-mail – rather than a deeply intrusive audit trail of life minutia – is a deceitful liar. On this occasion, however, I don’t think Brandis was a deceitful liar; I believe he actually thinks his legislation covers the equivalent of a manila envelope.

I say this because Brandis went on to thoroughly humiliate himself and the government with an extraordinary display of ignorance about even the basics of the Internet. He didn’t even know what a url is, reassuring bemused viewers that the government did not intend to track the activities of Web users, but was only interested in capturing the “Internet addresses” of visited sites.

What followed was something that fans of the brilliant Australian satirists John Clarke and Brian Dawe would deeply appreciate. The A-G just kept digging, arguing amidst a machine-gun sea of stutters that Internet users wouldn’t be tracked – only the electronic addresses that their computers connected to.

Matters became worse. In a desperate attempt to reassert his authority, the A-G turned to Skype. Apparently “not all Skype conversations can be considered metadata”. This came as something of a surprise to the mass of legal experts and judges who regard Skype conversation as content, not metadata.

Still, how can a person who doesn’t know a URL from a WTF be expected to understand the intricacies of metadata, let alone retention.

The government’s communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, then came to the rescue, telling Bloomberg TV the policy was not fully worked out and that “metadata meant different things to different people.”

Bad move. Turnbull’s admission simply meant that the government had drafted retention legislation without even having agreed on a definition of metadata.

You could dismiss all these events as the absurdities of one ignorant, security-obsessed Conservative administration, blindly following the absurdities of a bigger ignorant, security-obsessed Conservative administration, but the matter is far more serious.

George Brandis is the country’s chief law officer. His role is to protect the public interest, so he has a duty to understand the laws he promotes. More important, he authorizes warrants – and clearly he authorizes them with blind faith that the bureaucracy knows what to recommend.

Even the surveillance-mad UK government would find difficulty accepting such a dangerous situation.

It’s one thing for Australia to suffer a discredited retention proposal, but quite another to tolerate an Attorney General who quite clearly has no clue about metadata, surveillance or modern communications.

More important still, perhaps it’s time for media to ask why Australia exploits communications data at twice the magnitude of Britain. An explanation is urgently needed.