New slides leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden reveal that the Australian government was willing to share vast amounts of uncensored data that it collected on its citizens with a number of other countries around the world.
The slides from April 2008, first reported by The Guardian, show the willingness of the Australian government, through the Australian Signals Directorate, to hand over large amounts of metadata on its citizens to the other governments of the Five Eyes group — the United States, Canada, Britain, and New Zealand.
The Australian Signals Directorate — or Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), as it was known in 2008 — was said to be able to share "bulk, unselected, un-minimised metadata, as long as there is no intent to target an Australian national — unintentional collection is not viewed as a significant issue".
Where there is a "pattern of life" search of the metadata looking to target a specific individual using their metadata records, the DSD said in the slide that a ministerial warrant would need to be obtained.
Metadata is the information about a communication, such as the time a call was made, the location of the call, the phone number, and the call duration. In the financial year of the leak of the slides, the Attorney-General's Department recorded 183,099 authorisations from government departments to access metadata from Australian telecommunications companies. This record only starts from November 2007, and excludes national security agencies such as the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
In 2011-12, authorisations for metadata access rose to 293,501. The latest figures have yet to be released, but the Attorney-General's Department told ZDNet that the report on telecommunications interception and access in the last financial year is due to be tabled this month.
The Snowden leak also reveals that the Australian Federal Police was reviewing how signals intelligence information can be shared to non-intelligence agencies.
The collection of metadata has been a source of major controversy in Australia over the past year, with the Australian parliament this year conducting a review into national security obligations for Australian telecommunications companies. As calls and texts are increasingly moving over to data on the networks, and billing plans have changed over time, telcos are not needing to retain metadata records for billing purposes, meaning law enforcement agencies have had less access to this data.
The agencies have lobbied the government to require ISPs to store this data for up to two years, but neither the former government nor the new government made any move towards requiring mandatory data retention.