In a year when Australian government agencies were fighting to force telecommunications companies to retain metadata records for up to two years, it has been revealed that those agencies gained access to that data on 319,874 occasions in the last financial year.
Access to the metadata — the time, date, location, and recipient information about telephone calls, emails, and other communications — by Australian government agencies has been controversial over the last year. The government is currently sitting on a report put together under the former parliament that argued that a decision on whether to force telecommunications companies to retain the data for up to two years should be made by the government.
The Greens party has pushed to require the agencies to obtain a warrant from a judge prior to accessing the data, but the Australian Federal Police and others have said that this would create a bottleneck that would hinder investigations.
A leak from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden also recently revealed that the Australian government was willing to share bulk uncensored metadata on Australian citizens with other members of the so-called Five Eyes, so long as specific individuals were not being targeted.
Late yesterday, the attorney-general tabled the annual report (PDF) of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979, detailing how government agencies have intercepted telecommunications and accessed stored metadata records over the last financial year.
In the last financial year, law enforcement agencies, federal government departments, state governments, local councils, and other state authorities accessed telecommunications records for criminal investigations 319,874 times, up from 290,358 in last financial year.
The report revised down its original 2011-12 figure from 293,501 to 290,358 after receiving advice from the Australian Crime Commission that reduced the number of its authorisations by over 3,000.
Big increases mainly came from the law enforcement agencies with the AFP, up to 25,582 authorisations from 22,900 in 2012; the New South Wales Police, up to 119,705 from 103,824 in 2012; and the West Australian Police, up to 19,812 from 12,293.
It is not just law enforcement that gains access to the metadata, however. Local and state government agencies including RSPCA South Australia, Wyndham City Council, Racing NSW, and the Department of Fisheries accounted for 2,355 authorisations in the financial year for the protection of public revenue.
Including the authorisations granted for non-criminal investigations, the total number of authorisations sits at 330,640.
In response to the growing controversy surrounding the access to telecommunications records, this year's report also contains a number of case studies outlining why the agencies need access to the data. One such case study from Wyndham City Council explains that the council used a phone number that it had obtained from Ambulance Victoria to track down and prosecute a dog owner whose dog had attacked an elderly man, but left the scene after calling for an ambulance.
The Australian Crime Commission also highlighted that it uses telephone records to trace money laundering.
The law enforcement agencies have gone to lengths to point out that although metadata access does not require a warrant, access to the content of communications or interception of telephone calls still do need a warrant. However, the report also reveals that the Australian Federal Police in the last financial year put in place an interception in one instance where a person was likely to receive a call from a person threatening to kill or seriously injure someone else.