Australia's chief law officer brands metadata a 'contestable concept'

Australia's chief law officer brands metadata a 'contestable concept'

Summary: Attorney-General George Brandis has backed Prime Minister Tony Abbott's description of metadata as 'essentially billing data' as a perfectly accurate shorthand description for a debatable term.


The Australian Senate has descended into debates of word definitions as Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam and the nation's Attorney-General Senator George Brandis have once again locked horns in Senate Question Time today.

In response to statements made yesterday by Prime Minister Tony Abbott that metadata is "essentially the billing data", and the prime minister's assertion that there is a large difference between billing data and actual content of calls, Senator Ludlam called upon the attorney-general to school the prime minister in the definition of the term "metadata".

"Metadata reveals mobile and landline phone records, a person's precise location, the source and destination of electronic mail, their entire social networks, your web history — could the attorney please give an undertaking to remind the PM of what this term actually means?" Ludlam asked.

Brandis responded by saying that metadata is a term that means different things to different people, and that during the course of parliamentary inquiries in the last parliament, a number of different witnesses had delivered different definitions of the term metadata.

"I, myself, on the basis of having been informed by the evidence of those several witnesses during the course of the last parliament, thought that the prime minister's description of metadata as 'essentially billing details' was a perfectly accurate shorthand description of what is a contestable concept," the attorney-general said.

Yesterday in the Senate Question Time, Senator Brandis branded NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden an "American traitor" as he responded to reports that the Australian Signals Directorate was willing to share "bulk, unselected, un-minimised metadata" with other members of the Five Eyes intelligence group.

"Those claims are made on the basis of material placed in the public domain by the American traitor Edward Snowden," Brandis said.

"I note that the document of which the report is based is unverified. I also note that the unverified document is described as a draft document, which, contrary to all reports, does not report or record any activity by any Australian intelligence agency."

The attorney-general said that Australian intelligence agencies "operate under a strong framework of legislation, parliamentary, ministerial, and executive oversight", and the government is confident that its intelligence agencies act legally.

Topics: Security, Government AU, Privacy, Australia


Chris started his journalistic adventure in 2006 as the Editor of Builder AU after originally joining CBS as a programmer. After a Canadian sojourn, he returned in 2011 as the Editor of TechRepublic Australia, and is now the Australian Editor of ZDNet.

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  • A traitor = Somebody who tells the people what their government is doing

    Metadata = Tracking information that can be used to monitor opposition political movements. It can also be used to extract the contacts list of investigative journalists, to reveal who that journalist's contacts are.
    • Agreed

      In any case, "revealing state secrets" doesn't constitute treason anywhere in the free world.

      There may actually be good reasons for infiltrating political organizations that are reasonably suspected of illegal activity, but it should be done in person by agents who are actually risking their lives and careers to do their duty; not by back-room clerks surreptitiously intercepting communications (warrants for the latter should require probable cause, as usual).
      John L. Ries
      • How naive.

        Warrants? really?

        It's already been admitted by those who are well placed to know that Snowden's revelations haven't put at risk a single agent's life, much as you'd like to believe to the contrary.

        But warrants? Sheesh. All you have to do is look at Manning's situation to realise that a fair trial in the US for this sort of thing isn't going to happen.

        Warrant. S'truth, you do believe everything, don't you? Or perhaps you're part of "them".
        • Decide for yourself

          All I can think is that given the number of Americans who are not at all afraid to speak their minds in public , we are subject to a particularly ineffective form of tyranny, if people like you are to be believed.
          John L. Ries
          • John, I have...

            ...decided for myself, that is. My father grew up in Nazi Germany. He was a strong believer in what his leader was saying, back then, judging by his views and attitudes about the US in the 60s and 70s, when I was growing up.
            I see a similar environment developing in the US as was present in pre-war (WWII) Germany. People were free to speak their minds, for a while. However, the monitoring systems (neighbours dobbing in neighbours, etc) quickly curtailed that.

            There may an illusion of freedom, but the letter of the law is being disregarded by those we have trusted to protect it, all in the name of security.

            Just as an example of how heinous this has become: what Manning exposed was innocent journalists and civilians being massacred. The perpetrators got off scott-free: Manning is behind bars for exposing it. Does that seem right to you? And if you were Snowden, armed with these facts, would you rely on "a fair go" at the hands of the legal system?

          • But if you're right...

            ...this has been going on a very long time (at least since 2001). Germany was a de jure one party state within a year of Hitler's appointment as chancellor, and his authority was absolute after President Hindenberg's death in 1934. And the Nazi Party was never shy about publicly exerting force or intimidation; it had its very own paramilitary units dedicated to that very purpose, which operated openly. Dictatorships don't take decades to consolidate; they happen within a very few years, or not at all. I know of no counterexamples.
            John L. Ries
  • Disregard Brandis, except for his inherent danger to society...

    ... he is a classic 1950s style ultra right wing hack lawyer way out of his depth with anything technical and only capable of following US corporate dictates to convert this country into the next state of the US of A.

    A fine example of his legal/moral attitude is his insistence that dancing like a clown jester at a notoriously right wing radio shock jockeys wedding (think a slightly slimmer Rush disco dancing...) was a legitimate parliamentary expense for which he claimed a nice refund. He's a prime old style dufus, but one who has three years to sell us all out to his masters in the NSA and Hollywood...
    • That would be six states, not one.

      And I'm not at all sure we Americans want you to join us.
      John L. Ries
      • Again, naive.

        Seriously, I used to look forward to your comments: you had that world-view sense, back then. Now, you sound like Brandis.

        I'm going to assume other Yanks still have a sense for what these revelations really mean, and don't subscribe to the Establishmentarian View that our rights aren't being trampled on - yes, I'm still a "Yank" - by this organisation. Speaking of warrants... where is NSA's warrant for searching and seizing our private information? Or should I scoff - as you do - at Merkel and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's views on being spied upon?
        • Prism is probably unconstitutional...

          ...but I see precious little evidence that it's being used for political repression, or that secret agents are snatching "troublemakers" and putting them where they'll never be seen again. We're not even seeing US dissidents dying of mysterious illnesses, or suddenly falling silent for no apparent reason.

          Political repression does have certain tell-tale signs that are very hard to cover up and I'm not seeing them.
          John L. Ries
          • I've long been skeptical of conspiracy theories

            Mind you, secret societies, to include criminal ones, are known to exist and some of them are or have been highly influential, but I think the claims made by conspiracists on both the right and the left over the last six decades are way overblown. Secrets are hard to keep, especially if your project is long term, lots of people are involved, and what you have in mind is highly likely to offend the moral sensibilities of some people. It's also very difficult to keep a conspiracy going long term without any defections or detection; you might do it for a year or two, but eventually there will be disagreements or personality conflicts that will threaten the unity of the group (the larger the conspiracy, the faster this happens). This is why coup plotters usually act very quickly (the longer they wait, the more likely they are to be caught).

            Organized crime has had a good deal of success over the years, but participants have a bad habit of turning up dead periodically and it's not usually hard to guess why.
            John L. Ries
          • "but I see precious little evidence"

            Blackmail usually isn't very public and neither party is usually very interested in talking about it. How wonderful you are so trusting though....or not wonderful.