Have metadata laws gone too far?

By Jonathan Jackson. Published at Jul 12, 2019, in Ctrl Alt Del

You’ve heard of bracket creep, otherwise known as inflationary thievery, but now there is another creep we have to look out for – metadata creep.

According to Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow, Australia’s controversial metadata regime has amassed too much power and threatens press freedom.

Santow is now pushing the Morrison government to slash police access to the private records of phone and Internet users as the laws come into review.

The data retention scheme, which was to last until at least this year, sees the metadata of every Australian's mobile and online communications collected, stored and potentially scrutinised by national security bodies.

Passed in 2015, the laws compel telecommunications companies and Internet service providers to keep consistent and reliable data on their customers for two years.

Metadata to be stored includes:

  • Names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and IP addresses of customers in accordance with billing details.
  • Phone numbers, usernames, email addresses and IP addresses of any individual or account that establishes a phone call, SMS message, voice message or email.
  • The destination of any communications, or those who receives communications excluding internet browsing histories.
  • The date, time and duration of communication or any details identifying a connection to an internet service (such as Wi-Fi or ADSL).
  • The types of communications and internet services used.
  • The location where a communication is made.

It had its critics even then, with Jon Lawrence, the Executive Officer of non-profit organisation Electronic Frontiers Australia telling the Huffington Post, "We need to make sure that the government doesn't step too far down the wrong path here. If this information is compromised, that can do real genuine harm to people's lives. Certain information about people getting out in the public domain can do genuine harm to people."

It has all come to a head this year, with the recent raids on journalists, in particular Annika Smethurst, who was raided after publishing secret, leaked government information relating to discussions inside the Department of Defence and Department of Home Affairs about giving Australia's domestic cyber spies broader powers.

Santow told the Sydney Morning Herald, "I think the raids have really shone a light for the entire Australian community that we need to have targeted laws that protect us against serious crime but that don't go any further than absolutely necessary in impinging on basic rights, and those rights include media freedom," Mr Santow said.

"We accept it's necessary to have laws that may impinge to some extent on rights like privacy in order to protect the community against serious crimes. But our fundamental concern is that the law goes further than it should and breaches a number of human rights."

Prime Minister Scott Morrison will launch an enquiry into the matter to examine any changes to national security laws "to better balance the need for press freedom with the need for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to investigate serious offending and obtain intelligence on security threats".

That’s really what the question is: how do you balance your right to safety against your right to privacy?

Police are accessing metadata for serious criminal investigations including terrorism and drug offences.

That seems right to me. However, they are also using it to probe more minor things like traffic infringements, which would seem to go too far.

I’m no ethicist. I believe that if you have nothing to hide... then you have nothing to hide, but by the same token, I and I’d say the majority of Australians aren’t criminals.

So where do we draw the line. It’s a question that will be debated for some time to come in an era where Control, Alt, Delete, doesn’t really get you very far.

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