When Australian Federal Police (AFP) Commissioner Tony Negus told a parliamentary hearing yesterday that he would ideally like telecommunications customer data kept indefinitely, it was clear that he was engaged in bargaining with the government.
"We would like to have it indefinitely, and if we had [our way], we would definitely like to see this held indefinitely, and then we can go back and reconstruct issues or crime scene events that happened many, many years ago. But we understand that is not practical in the context of costs associated with that," he told the committee.
He revealed that the AFP and other law enforcement agencies had asked the Attorney-General's Department to keep so-called telecommunications metadata for longer — between five and seven years — but the department said that two years was more appropriate, given the privacy concerns and costs associated with implementing the changes. When the government released its discussion paper on the telecommunications reform proposals earlier this year, the backlash to even two years was strong.
Since then, telecommunications companies have flagged that — based on the European experience with data retention — six months is a more appropriate length of time to retain the data.
And why would the police agencies come out yesterday and say that they wanted to keep the data forever? Because, suddenly, two years doesn't seem quite so horrific. It's pure bartering to see how much, exactly, the police can get away with. They have made it clear to the committee that they have "compromised" in wanting call logs, internet data and other customer information for just two years.
The question now remains that, if the agencies are given their "compromised" two years of data retention now, will they be given five, seven, or indefinite years of retention down the track?
At this point, it is difficult to determine what the committee will recommend. The Labor government is keen on keeping up to date with the advancements in technology, but is aware of the potential privacy implications. The Coalition cannot be drawn on the topic. While some backbenchers are reportedly concerned about the proposals, Shadow Attorney-General George Brandis — who is on the committee overseeing the review — has not weighed in with his own view.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott tweeted yesterday that it was "important to be very careful about new laws that could compromise privacy."
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, whose vote is relied on for the passage of legislation in the lower house, at one point questioned a member of the NSW Young Lawyers as to why he was opposed to Australian law enforcement agencies keeping data, but it was okay for big banks and supermarkets to know what their customers are doing.
"I'd trust [Australian Security Intelligence Organisation] ASIO more than I'd trust my bank or supermarket," Wilkie said.
The answer is, it is much easier to switch banks or shop at different supermarkets, than it is to switch governments if both the major parties support data retention.