The Federal Government wants to canvas public opinion on controversial data-retention proposals that would potentially require telecommunications companies to store customer data for up to two years.
The revelation came as part of a review into national security legislation announced by Attorney-General Nicola Roxon. She has asked the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security to look at reforming five pieces of legislation to assist law-enforcement agencies working with telecommunications companies in investigating organised crime and terrorism.
While the government is looking to actively progress and consider a number of reforms, at this stage it is just seeking the views of the public on data retention. The government is seeking public opinion on whether the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 should be amended to require telecommunications companies to have data-retention periods of up to two years for certain, as yet undefined, data sets. The committee is to take into account what impact this would have on customer privacy, and the costs it would impose on telcos.
ZDNet Australia broke the news in 2010 that the Attorney-General's Department was having meetings with internet service providers (ISPs) about a potential data-retention law that would require ISPs to keep a log of a customer's internet access, and possibly even the private browsing history.
At the time, the department blacked out a number of documents from meetings on the matter obtained under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, saying that it did not want to invoke "premature unnecessary debate".
Cybercrime legislation passed the House late last year was set to allow law-enforcement agencies to ask ISPs to retain customer data for individuals suspected of crimes, but under the legislation this data could only be obtained once a warrant is issued.
Former Attorney-General Robert McClelland believed that asking ISPs to retain data for one year would have been sufficient to align Australia with international standards for law enforcement.
The government is also asking for public opinion on whether ISPs should have obligations in place to protect networks from unauthorised interference, and whether ISPs should be required to provide the government with information on significant business and procurement decisions, as well as network design.
Such a measure would be put into place to mitigate potential risks to Australia's communications networks by "certain foreign technology and service suppliers". The decision to specifically look at foreign technology companies comes almost two months after it was revealed that the government had banned Chinese network giant Huawei from applying for tenders for the National Broadband Network (NBN).
Changes that the government wishes to progress as part of this review would increase privacy protection under the Interception Act, introducing mandatory record-keeping standards for ISPs, reducing the number of agencies able to access communications information and improving the standard of warrants. The government also wants to update the definition of "computer" under the ASIO Act.
The government is also considering amending the ASIO Act to enable the disruption of a target computer that ASIO wants access to, and has a warrant for.
Roxon said in a statement that while it is important for law enforcement to stay ahead of criminals, there needs to be the right checks and balances in place, which is why the government is seeking public input.
"Unlike the Howard Government, the Gillard Government wants to give the public a say in the development of any new laws, which is why I'm asking the committee to conduct public hearings," she said.
"National-security legislation is important — but also important is the trust and confidence that Australians have in those laws."
Greens communications spokesperson Senator Scott Ludlam welcomed public consultation on data retention, but he warned that the government may eventually ignore any advice provided.
"While the Greens welcome a public consultation on the proposed changes to ASIO's powers, the Attorney-General's Department is notorious for cheerfully ignoring the advice of experts, interest groups and the general public," he said.
"This looks like an ambit claim for surveillance overkill, but nevertheless, the Australian Greens will work closely with legal and privacy experts as well as ISPs and concerned citizens to turn back this unwarranted invasion of Australians' online privacy."
Telstra, which has previously said it would be costly for telcos to retain large amounts of customer data, would not comment on national security issues, but highlighted a 2010 submission from the Communications Alliance (PDF) that said the government must justify any data retention policy by outlining the benefits, and limiting the scope of the data retained.
If the committee decides to go ahead with the inquiry, it would be required to report back to the government by 31 July 2012.
Updated at 4:26pm, 4 May 2012: added comment from Optus, Telstra and Ludlam.