The Week: Metadata

There was enormous interest in the Prime Minister’s address to the National Press Club on Monday, but mostly for reasons that are of little direct concern here. Something about the leadership of the country?

Lost amidst the politicking and veiled threats to his own backbenchers were some details that were directly relevant, namely Abbott’s reinforced commitment to getting the new, expanded data retention legislation through parliament. The government argues that these laws would give ASIO augmented powers to identify potential terrorist threats. Others argue that even if these new powers would be effective, they come as the cost of further erosion of fundamental freedoms, and that by default they turn citizens into suspects.

The laws would require telecommunications providers to retain the metadata of customers for a period of no less than two years. Metadata is the data about communications, rather than the contents of the communication itself.

For example, metadata of a phone call would include the time when the call was made, its duration, who made the call, where it was made, the device it was made on, who was called and several other details. The federal government argues that this would not equate to snooping on people’s phone calls, and that the information you can glean from metadata is limited.

The truth is that the information you can obtain from metadata is less limited than you might think, and certainly less limited than the government is disingenuously letting on. Here, for example, is an excellent Ted Talk by Malte Spitz, in which he ‘maps’ 6 months of his own life based on the metadata he obtained from his telco.

Opponents of the legislation argue that there are insufficient safeguards against misuse by security agencies, inadequate provisions against ‘scope creep’, no clear definition of metadata, and no real breakdown of the cost of this expanded surveillance regime, either to tax payers or to telco providers who would pass this cost on to customers).

There is also the issue of who precisely can have access. Can Australian telco customers get access to their own data? Fairfax journalist Ben Grubb mounted an extended campaign to get access to his own metadata from Telstra, with frustrating results. Would thing improve under new expanded laws?

In any case, the Prime Minister believes that passage of this legislation has gained special urgency in light of the recent hostage incident at the Lindt café in Sydney – which the police have not classified as a terrorist attack – and the mass murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. The implication, presumably, is that these attacks could have been prevented by legislation such as this. Is this true, or are these tragedies simply being repurposed for political ends, as David Marr warned they might be. In fact, France already data retention laws not dissimilar to the ones being introduced here.

The Prime Minister is in no doubt: “From the siege to Charlie Hebdo, there are a whole range of people in our country who want to do us harm, and it’s absolutely vital that we maintain the capacity to trace, detect and protect the Australian public against all kinds of crime. This government will not rest until our community is safe as it can be, and part of that is getting data retention through the Parliament.”

He also revealed this morning that he has written to the Opposition Leader not to block the legislation, which he hopes will make it through both houses by the middle of next month.