Australian government announces new data retention law

In a controversial move designed to combat terrorism and child abuse, the Australian government has enacted legislation to allow for the retention of metadata for up to two years.

Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull: Law "critical" for fighting crime
Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull: Law "critical" for fighting crime

The Australian government came under fire today as it introduced a new law which allows it to collect and retain internet metadata on Australian citizens for up to two years.

Although some data is already being retained, the law gives new powers which allow for tracking of specific data including who called and texted and when, to whom and how long for.

Data tracking is also a big part of this, covering everything from email IP data, volume of data exchanged, type of data (HTTP etc) and device information is included.

The bill has been pushed by Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull since his days as communications minister.

Turnbull has branded the laws as being “critical” for government investigations, citing them as vital for the investigation of domestic terrorism and child abuse.

"No responsible government can sit by while those who protect us lose access to vital information, particularly in the current high threat environment," he said at the time, in a joint statement with Australian attorney-general George Brandis.

The Australian government has stressed that data collected is only metadata, and as such contains no content.

No browsing history is tracked, and the Australian government said that entities that provide telecommunications services based in Australia, including social media providers such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Viber, Twitter and Instagram will not be covered by this law either.

Company and school intranets are not tracked.

Concerns

The new law has been the source of heated debate. It not only grants authorities greater access to data but requires less due process. Given that authorities will no longer be required to obtain a warrant to access metadata, experts have expressed fears that the new laws could be abused to investigate even minor crimes.

Those who oppose the law have also expressed that when looking at metadata, even if it doesn't have content, it can show a hugely detailed image of the person's activity, calling the laws “Big Brother-esque”.

A warrant will still be needed to access a journalist's data to reveal their sources, but the hearings will be held behind closed doors. This is similar to the FISA courts in the US which has been criticised for its lack of public accountability.

No warrant will be needed by the authorities to search the metadata of people in its own ranks either.

Experts have criticised the new laws on numerous grounds, ranging from the cost of storing the metadata to the fear that this opens a Pandora's Box to more surveillance on Australian citizens in the future.

Companies are reporting that they are unclear on whether or not they are covered by the new laws and what data they need to retain. 

Senator Scott Ludlam of the Australian Green Party tweeted

The Green Party voted against the bill, along with six independent senators.

The security of the servers used to hold the data has also been a question, with mass data breaches becoming increasingly common around the world.

Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, the privacy advocacy group, commented on the new laws, quoting Paul Ohm who described them as a "database of ruin".

King said: "We only need to look at the OPM data breach in the US where the details of 21.5 million people were stolen, to learn why this is an extremely bad idea."

"The amount of money, data and integrity lost only shows how the number of cyber attacks on this scale are on the rise, and the new database of metadata retained by the Australian Government will too come under attack," he said.