Aussie data retention so dangerous it's 'dynamite': Berners-Lee

Aussie data retention so dangerous it's 'dynamite': Berners-Lee

Summary: Sir Tim Berners-Lee has branded the Australian government's data retention proposals as "fraught with massive danger," and containing the possibility to hold every Australian to ransom if data logs are stolen.


A controversial plan to store information about personal internet and telephone usage in Australia has been criticised by the world wide web's inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Internet service providers and telecommunications companies would be asked to store data that passes through their networks for up to two years under plans being considered by the Federal government.

Law enforcement agencies want the data retained to help fight crime.

Speaking in Sydney on Tuesday, Berners-Lee said that although it is important that technology is used to help fight crime, data retention laws could result in a nation where Australians are trapped by their own information.

"You'll produce a world where a teenager who really needs to visit an online forum to get some professional advice...realises that if they click, they will be branded for the next two years as having gone to that site."

He said that the proposed laws seemed to be "fraught with massive danger," and likened it to a time bomb waiting to explode.

"That information is so dangerous, you have to think about it as dynamite. If it gets away, what you've done is prepare a dossier on every person on the country that will allow them, if that dossier is stolen, to be blackmailed."

He pointed out the absurdity of keeping the government accountable, asking the question of who would watch the watchers.

"When you have something that dangerous; if you have a government agency that deals with that, then boy, do you have to have another government agency with the same power looking at that first government agency to check what it actually does. I can see no country that has set up those two: how to watch the watchers and the watchers of the watchers."

Berners-Lee also said that such a data retention system would do little to catch serious criminals because they would find ways around it, including using encrypted and secure networks, and that logs "won't contain information for stopping serious criminals, only the people who've taken out too many library books."

"They are going to use Tor, or they're going to so through some intermediate node. They're going to go to certain trouble to secure it. They'll open up a tunnel or VPN," he said, adding that these measures also have legitimate uses among whistleblowers and should not be shut down.

He said that it would instead serve to scare people away from legitimate, but more private uses of the internet, such as looking for advice on personal matters like their sexuality.

"Imagine that if someone would actually end up not be able to use the web for these very, very intimate things. Remember that sometimes, we share with the web things that they don't even share with their nearest and dearest."

Topics: Security, Government, Government AU, Australia

Michael Lee

About Michael Lee

A Sydney, Australia-based journalist, Michael Lee covers a gamut of news in the technology space including information security, state Government initiatives, and local startups.

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  • Glad we have sane people like Sir Berner-Lee

    I am stunned that this law proposal is prepared in the country that is supposed to be "democratic" and "free". As of now, Australia surely goes to that famous "Big Brother" future.
  • we're all moving in this direction

    The masses go along with it because they think "doesn't affect me, I'm not doing anything wrong". The problem with that is, you're not the one who gets to define "wrong"...
    • You nailed it!

      I by no mean am I conspiracy theorist, but I truly beileve there's many in high places who love to control you like you would control individual A/C units for example or lighting. Australia has been hinting at something like this for awhile now. They started out sniffing network traffic for "child porn" and the public was, well all right then. Now, they're shifting into something benign to see how people will react. Givem an inch!
  • Blame the government, not the country

    When you've got inept people like Conroy and Gillard in the Australian Government pushing these new changes, the Australian people are just hoping that we'll get to an election ASAP before these new laws come into effect. Not that I've asked them all but I believe the majority of Australians do not want all their present/future data stored for use by the government agencies. I'll be investing in a VPN and other traffic anonymizers in the very near future. The sooner Conroy is gone, the sooner the Australian people can breath easier.
    • Spartan

      Do you really think the other lot are any different? If anything, you'll find them worse. Anonymiser, yes, VPN, yes.

      (runs off and writes VPN for Dummies) :)
  • 1984 no 2013

    I think both sides of politics would love to have such power - I'm very much an average web & sms user - plain vanilla surfing and this scares the SH** out of me.
    George Orwell got it all right - just the date was wrong.

    I think this needs some good old fashion anti-Vietnam war demonstrations - I'm going to be doing the email to my MP thing and let people I know what's being proposed and encourage them to at least email their MP.
  • He has a point but...

    what we really need to do is create a society where most of the things people want to do in private on the internet are not considered to be so dysfunctional or weird. I am not against these proposals and in fact this data is kept anyway, its just not always ordered well enough to enable the 'watchers' to make balanced sense of what they are supposed ot be watching. Tim B-L might be right that as a society we are not ready for this kind of information to be made available to 'government appointed watchers' but this woudl be because we just don't trust those government appointed watchers to be watching out and judging people only based on whether they are committing crimes and not inventing new 'crimes' to watch for.

    In general though, the more we share information about ourselves and the more we are able to ensure justice is applied where injustice once existed, the more we will learn to trust one another to 'do the right thing' with the information they have and further, enable each other to 'do the right thing' by having that information that they previously did not. Its really all about us as a society - do we trust our government and 'ourselves', the people that make up that reasonably freely elected and increasingly but not yet 'very' transparent' government, the people who actually work for 'them', to not let their intentions wander?

    My personal opinion is that I'd like us to give it a try...
  • I used to hold Australia in high regard

    But now I see that they are just as half-assed and dangerous as the United States.
    • None of their business

      This is crazy and disrespectful to the public. Monitoring traffic to suspicious websites, sure, that makes complete sense. Monitoring daily activities of the average internet user is totally crap and a breach of privacy. It is NO-ONE'S business who I chat with, what I say to them and which sites I visit, etc. If they monitor illegal sites they won't see me there (because I don't visit those sites), so why do they need to see the "legitimate" sites I visit?

      In other words - monitor the illegal sites, not the law abiding folk who don't visit those sites.

      We have the The Privacy Act which doesn't allow you to ring my phone company, for example, and get information about me... so why can the government breach my privacy? Why can they read my PERSONAL conversations, web surfing habits, interests I have (e.g. forums I like to visit), etc.

      @Rich Smart: what a load of waffle. It makes me wonder if you work for the government.
      • They will abuse it

        Agree Melb Tweetr

        Even if all you do is surf legal sites for regular stuff & reasons - how easy is it to open a site by accident and end up in a being flagged by the watchers...will they then be knocking on your door for a please explain - or keep an eye on and monitor everything you do till they are satisfied you are harmless.

        It will be abused, data will end up in the hands of someone that found it in a rubbish bin - if I remember correctly didn't that happen to Vic Police files a few years ago (found in a bin or a lane)?
        We'll all wonder how it all went wrong in a few years time.
  • Watching the innocent

    I will admit that the idea is "good" in theory. I mean, the average user is not going to know about VPNs, anonymous proxies and the like, and nor would they need to. I mean, whether it's research for an assignment, or it's just using Facebook, what you do is of little consequence.

    Unfortunately, not everyone is as morally scrupulous as that. And will go to great lengths to hide their activities. Which, due to the progresses in security over the years, makes it difficult, if not impossible, to trace. But, and this is the important part, not everyone using these services is a criminal. VPNs are used by businesses and governments to transfer confidential data over insecure lines (think about financiers working from home, for example). Anonymous proxies are useful for investigators and reporters (particularly if their investigations are of a sensitive nature).

    In summary, what this means is that the majority is going to be watched like hawks, while the rest burrow deeper into the net.
  • Absolute power knows NO master!

    The old adage..' Absolute power corrupts absolutely!' is so applicable to this present Federal government who thinks it has absolute power.

    Our Federally elected members forget they are elected 'By the people, for the people' not the other way round!

    Any attempt by the government to force IPC's to retain ALL transmitted data in the Internet, is a travesty of justice. They already have enough laws, without the need for more, to track & apprehend any illegal use of the Internet.

    Using HTTPS, SSL and a VPN to encrypt & avoid any attempt to monitor the Internet is trivial! The Comodo Dragon browser even includes the facility to remove the HTTP Refer Header from every Packet to prevent a web site tracking you & your use of their site.

    Sen.Conroy & the Attorney General Nicola Roxon are dunderheads who don't understand, their efforts are a waste of time, money and an intrusion on the ordinary citizens privacy.
    • +1

      A correction.. IPC's should be ISP's....sorry
  • It's amusing!

    Refugees from places like Iran and Iraq etc are coming to Australia to escape perscution not only from those with religious or idealistic differences but also from repressive regimes where you cannot sneeze without a public record being made of it.

    So they come here for a better life and end up under a repressive internet regimen from an Australian Govt that is, itself, bordering on being a repressive regime with these sorts of laws. Sure we need to crack down on frauds, paedophilia and other problems persecuted on the net but why is it that for the less that 2% of people that actually take part in this sort of thing, the WHOLE of internet using Australia has to suffer?

    For my part, if they start doing this, I find a nice little VPN in a country Australia cannot have any effect on and start paying them. It isnt JUST the law it's the BLOODY INSULT!! Prove someone is doing something illegal THEN do something about THEM! Dont blame ME for what THEY do because with a law like this passing into existence, it is tantamount to saying that I am a criminal and thus have to prove I am not rather than I am innocent and they have to prove I am not!

    Whatever happened to the heart and spirit of the Labor Party? I would expect the Liberals to bring in just such a law. I think in the trus spirit of Gough Whitlam, "It's time for change!" but this time within the Labor Party itself!