Australian government reveals mandatory data retention plans

Data - generic

The Australian government has announced plans to introduce mandatory data retention, forcing telecommunications companies to hang on to certain customer data for up to 2 years.

It’s not yet clear what information this might include, but metadata retention usually refers to details of who contacted whom and when, rather than the content of communications. This information is in itself highly revealing, particularly when it extends past traditional telecommunications to include other kinds of online activity – the purpose of legislation recently fast-tracked in the U.K. It looks like the Australian law will also be rushed through as early as September.

The plans were leaked ahead of a Tuesday press conference, in which Prime Minister Tony Abbott said they would help in the fight against terrorism. In a statement, the Liberal-led coalition government said it would “update Australia’s telecommunication interception law which predates the internet era and is increasingly ineffective.”

The government said it would introduce “proper oversight” to protect Australians’ privacy rights though, as with the legislation itself, we don’t know the precise terms for that. Attorney-General George Brandis also reportedly mentioned that the counter-terrorism proposals may take in threats and hate speech on social media.

Australian communications minister Malcolm Turnbull had rather different views on the matter when the Liberals, now in power, were in opposition. When it was Labor proposing mandatory data retention, Turnbull said the proposals were “heading in precisely the wrong direction” because they were anti-privacy and took away the right for people to “delete that which they have created in the same way as can be done in the analogue world.”

Now Labor is, as ZDNet’s Chris Ducker pointed out, all that stands in the way of Australia following the U.K.’s lead – and heading in the opposite direction from Europe. In reaction to the government announcement, Labor leader Bill Shorten described mandatory data retention as an “internet tax” because of the costs that service providers may incur in storing customer data and making it available to spies and law enforcement.

As with the U.K.’s DRIP Act, I reckon the politicians involved here fail to understand what communications means in the modern age. As our lives move into what are effectively virtual town squares and living rooms, much of everyday activity can be conceptually and legally reduced to “communications”. Make no mistake, this “modernization” of traditional intercept laws equates to extensive, pervasive surveillance.

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