Telstra has claimed that its assistance to law-enforcement agencies investigating crimes deters terrorists and organised crime syndicates from signing up as customers.
Speaking before the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Security and Intelligence in Sydney this morning, Telstra's director of corporate security and investigations Darren Kane told the committee that the company's long-standing commitment to providing customer call data and other information has kept criminals from signing up with Telstra.
"Telstra's probably a victim of our own success in relation to this. As I said, we have a long history of support for law-enforcement and national security agencies, and as a result they know the quality of what we report," he said.
"Common sense says they probably wouldn't use our services."
He was appearing with other Telstra executives to discuss the government's proposed amendments to telecommunications-interception legislation, including the controversial proposal to require internet service providers (ISPs) and other telecommunications companies to retain as yet undefined customer metadata for two years, which could include call logs and web-browsing data.
Kane argued that any data-retention scheme should not be tiered — where smaller ISPs keep less data than larger companies — because it would just encourage criminals to switch to smaller ISPs.
"Under the tiering system, if it is only Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone who is going to retain this data, any of these well-organised terrorist threats, organised crime syndicates, will obviously use a smaller ISP, a smaller carrier that doesn't have the mandatory requirements we have," he said.
Telstra's head of government relations James Shaw said that there is no simple answer to what customer data Telstra already retains. He said that it varies across the platform, network, and product, and that even to scope out how much it would cost to retain a specific set of data would cost the company millions.
"What we know is that it will cost several million dollars just to scope out the cost of preparing the datasets for the agencies under the data-retention proposal," he said.
Telstra would need to determine the cost of collating the data, storing it, securing it, making it available in a useable format for law-enforcement agencies, and then ultimately the destruction of that data.
Coalition MP Philip Ruddock told Shaw that he ultimately isn't concerned if it costs the company millions if it could be used to prevent a terrorist attack.
Shaw said that the difficulty is that agencies may seek application data, such as emails from Gmail or conversations from Skype, that Telstra does not have access to, and subsequently that the data is not collected.
"It may well be that you could put in a quite expensive and onerous data-retention scheme [and end up with] with a large window."
Shaw said that the best model to implement would be similar to that used in the United Kingdom, where there is a centralised storage facility for the data, with representatives from various law-enforcement agencies who work to deal with requests from their home office and access the data themselves.
"You'll have representatives from various police forces and constabularies who are available in one place to support their home force; they have access to industry best practice and technology engineers. Where they have a request from their home force, it comes to the person who is their representative, he or she gets the most information that is most relevant, and it is fed back out," he said.
"We think that is something that should be done in this country."
The two-day hearing in Sydney concludes today.