Labor will decide if Australia chooses mandatory data retention

Labor will decide if Australia chooses mandatory data retention

Summary: The music is about to stop on the dancing around the issue of data retention in Australia, and the former government needs to make its plans clear to the electorate.


Now the conservative Liberal government has played its hand by revealing it wants a scheme that will mandate the collection and storage of metadata for two years for each and every resident in Australia, the only thing standing between an unwilling populace and yet another step towards a surveillance state is the Labor party. God help us.

A bit over a year has passed since the Gillard Labor government shelved its data retention plans, and moved onto other battles that it wanted to fight. In this case, the fight was against itself, and history shows that Gillard and her lieutenants were ultimately unsuccessful in preventing a Kevin Rudd return to the Prime Ministership.

In the chaotic, fast-paced few months of the Rudd resurrection and the ensuing election campaign, both the Liberal and Labor parties decided that the best decision on data retention was no decision, and the issue was kicked down the road to be revisited at another time.

With today's revelation that Australia's national security committee has approved the idea of a mandatory data retention scheme, the time for parliamentarians and the electorate to re-engage on the issue is now.

In less than twelve months, the Abbott government has decided that the issue is important enough that not only should Australia have a mandatory data retention regime, but it so pressing that not even the otherwise-knowledgeable Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, should be told about such manoeuvres in policy.

"The issue that you're talking about I've seen speculated in the press, hasn't come to Cabinet yet and I'm not in a position to add to the speculation," he told journalists this morning.

Given that Turnbull had "grave misgivings" about Labor's dancing around the idea of data retention when it was in government, and that Brandis and Turnbull have failed to see eye-to-eye on the much less intrusive co-signed copyright infringement discussion paper released last week, it is little wonder that the potentially problematic minister was not informed of a decision which will see the Member for Wentworth take even more heat from the electorate than he is already subjected to over the NBN rollout.

That the conservative Liberal government is a fan of mandatory data retention, and that Attorney-General George Brandis is its primary cheerleader, should not arrive as a total surprise.

Over recent months, Brandis has been making declarations supportive of a metadata retention scheme, and late last year referred to metadata as a contestible concept.

"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," Brandis said.

By April, helped along and infuriated with the revelations from Edward Snowden of the Five Eyes surveillance to which Australia is a part, Brandis was beginning to wrap the discussion around surveillance and national security in a blanket of terrorism protection.

"Just as the technology employed by terrorists, agents of espionage and organised criminals adapts and advances, so too must the capabilities and powers of our law enforcement and security agencies," he said at the time.

"I must confess frankly that, as the minister within the Australian system with responsibility for homeland security, the more intelligence I read, the more conservative I become."

"The more deeply I come to comprehend the capacity of terrorists to evade surveillance, the more I want to be assured that where our agencies are constrained, the threat to civil liberty is real and not merely theoretical."

Just last month, Brandis admitted that data retention was under active consideration and said the western world was heading towards such schemes.

The writing was on the wall, we just had to wait for the drapes to fall away to give us the big reveal.

Covered in a veil of counter-terrorism, and arriving in a procession of Australian flags and nationalism, Prime Minister Tony Abbott welcomed the proposed introduction of a mandatory data retention scheme as a necessary tool in the "Team Australia" arsenal. It would naturally be protected by a "whole range of safeguards", he said, without naming a specific element designed to protect the populace from the sort of illegal eavesdropping on spouses and ex-lovers that NSA agents are now known to have performed.

Even without a data retention scheme, history has already shown that Australian authorities are more than willing to hand over bulk uncensored metadata on Australian citizens with other Five Eyes nations. Not only does this mean the Australian population should be concerned about what its intelligence organisations could do with the collected data, they also need to be concerned what the agencies of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand could do with the data stored.

But regardless of what plans George Brandis found shelved by the previous government, and the deals needed to get the legislation through the current Senate, the state of Australian politics is such that for data retention to survive, it will need the backing of the Labor party to avoid being torn down when the Liberal government is no more.

To that end, the Labor party today once again kicked the issue down the road, with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten committing his party to "considering" the issue over the coming days and weeks after a briefing from the government on the issue.

In a sign that perhaps the political establishment will not consign the country to a form of small government that is big enough to want warrantless searching of browser history, Shorten said that in the pursuit of national security, the government must make sure it respects citizens and not treat them as criminals by default.

"[We need to] get the balance right between making sure we have strong national security, and the rights of citzens to their legitimate privacy," he said.

"Once liberties and rights are handed away, it is very difficult to get them back."

For the sake of the ongoing privacy of 23 million people, Shorten and his brethren would do well to remember how hard other people throughout history have fought to regain rights.

Because whether we, the Australian public, like it or not, all that stands between Australia and a legislated mandatory data retention scheme being fully operational next year is a political party that has skirted and leered longingly at just such a proposal when it was in government — and that situation should fill each and every one of us with dread.

It's up to Labor to prove us wrong, and do the right thing.

Topics: Privacy, Government AU, Security, 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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  • That we have arrived at this point with these 'leaders'

    For the sake of the ongoing privacy of 23 million people, Shorten and his brethren would do well to remember that they will be legitimate targets of the surveillance state as will the members of the other half of the one party system. Their supporters in the union movement and big business respectively may not be lily white and they may wish to give pause to the unintended consequences of the state no longer acting in a fair, proportionate and targeted fashion.

    At what point in the never ending festival of granting increased powers to public servants can we conclude that our democracy has been undermined. At what point have our representatives, no matter how pathetic they may currently be, boxed themselves into a corner whereby they can no longer act in wider interest without one of our 4 legged friends reminding them of something potentially embarrassing that they did ten years ago.

    If the only thing that stands between this latest threat to civil liberty and a further descent into secret police with the ability to disappear people is the labor party – the people who brought us mandatory full body scanners with no opt out clause, no limits on future technology and no requirement in the legislation that scanners be effective or safe or in the term before that the infamous data sharing legislation that we now know was about legalising 5+1 eyes and feeds to the NSA – then I think we can safely say we are sunk and the puppet masters have won.
  • That and...

    ...if Labor does oppose the current Government's data retention plans, it shouldn't be hard to convince third party Senators that will never ever see the inside of a federal cabinet meeting to join them in opposition, helping to insure the bill is never passed at all.
    John L. Ries
  • Not concerned.

    If you don't do anything wrong then why is this a problem?

    As it is Google already knows more about us than we probably would like them to and, I would guess, they make more use of that knowledge than the Government will.

    If it helps the Government stem the flow of things like terrorism I'm all for it.
    Gary O'Connor
    • Really?

      So, you think it is okay for the Government to be able to come in and search your home without a warrant? Your online life should be just as private as your "offline" home life.

      It isn't anything about people being afraid of what they will be "found doing", any real threat to the country, any real terrorists, are sure as hell not going to be accessing easily accessible websites with a non-encrypted tunnel out of their residence. It is quite literally going to do NOTHING to stop legitimate terrorist threats and everything to monitor and police everyone else.
      • Really

        If the government had a need to search my home then it is actually there and, with a warrant they could do that however, if they don't keep this data there is absolutely no way they could search it and if they do keep it they might just be able to gather the necessary data to catch someone with evil intent, so I'm happy for them to do so.

        Let's not get paranoid, do you really think they are going to have someone reading everything that everyone puts on the net? I don't think so. They would need a massive staff to do that and searching through the stuff I put on the net would guarantee that the staff member doing that would die from boredom. They will only check your data if you give them a reason to so I would suggest that, if you don't give them a reason to, they'll never check your data anyway.

        I have nothing to hide so I'm all for giving them the means to catch the bad guys.
        Gary O'Connor
        • You have nothing to hide.

          Nobody is claiming they have anything to hide, I have nothing against data retention in principle, but being able to access that data without a warrant (aka without probable cause) is the problem.

          It is the assumption of guilt before innocence. It is the digital equivalent of the police following you every single day in your car, waiting for you to go 1km/h over the speed limit and fining you.

          You can guarantee that the Prime Minister would not be okay with someone standing at this mailbox, taking a photo of every letter he receives to save it for 2 years. It would be an invasion of privacy to do so without a warrant, and to assume he is doing something wrong. Why is the internet not treated in the same way?
          • Probable cause.

            I think that too many people are overly nervous about the govt being able to read their internet usage. I have no doubts that will not happen.

            The govt will get the ISPs to retain the data but will only ever access it if you give them reasonable cause to.

            They are not going to hire thousands of staff to scan every single thing that happens on the net every day? The only time they would ever look at your data would be if you gave them cause to do so.

            I believe that there is no assumption that you are doing something wrong only the ability to check on your actions if you do actually do something wrong.

            I'm definitely all for it.
            Gary O'Connor
          • Then...

            They can get a warrant. That is what warrants are for. Plain and simple, you may have the utmost in confidence that no government would ever abuse the power to look at the data, but no matter how much you believe that, law enforcement should still be required to get a warrant.

            If I have done something wrong, or they have cause to think I did something wrong, they would have no problem getting a warrant to access the retained data. THAT is the crux.
        • 'nothing to hide' from metadata

          ...everyone has something to hide - if not from the govt then their partner or family/ must be a govt mole.
          • Everyone has something to hide?

            What a ridiculous statement. Just because I don't share your paranoia doesn't make me a government mole?

            If you do nothing wrong on the internet then you have nothing to hide.

            Are you are saying that you want to do things on the internet, or that you already do things on the internet, that are illegal and you don't want others to know about them?

            You know what, if you are going to do something illegal or maybe even immoral then you would certainly be aware that there could be consequences if you get caught but, if you don't do anything like that, who cares if the govt. gathers that information.

            Only people with something to hide would be afraid of this legislation. Please, your paranoia is showing. They will not be examining everything they gather, I can assure you that there would not be sufficient money in the coffers to hire enough staff to do that.

            Your actions will only be examined if you give them cause to so, don't do anything that brings you to the notice of the authorities and they will never check your data. You will be able to surf the net in peace while allowing them the tools they need to control our country's security.
            Gary O'Connor
  • Why Now? - The USA is already collecting this info for us!

    The USA is already collecting this form of data from it's own citizens and other countries including Australia (with the approval of our governments).

    Are we doubling up because we don't trust the Yanks to give it back on request?
  • What we need here is education

    I really dont think that Brandis actually understands what metadata is, nor how powerful it is. The fact that he has to be advised by someone else, that evidently has no idea either, that 'billing data' is a perfectly acceptable shorthand description is proof that he should be no where near this issue. I would RATHER they have my billing data.

    I think someone needs to put this image in front of him and ask where the billing data is:

      Thanks for link. That goes way beyond our 140 character allottment doesn't it!
  • LNP be careful what you ask for.

    LNP be careful what you ask for, it may come back to bite you on the arse.
    When Labor eventually gets back into power, which is likely, considering the possibility of a double dissolution within a few weeks, they would be within their rights under the new LNP legislation to demand the telephone data records of LNP MP's, their staffers etc, in order to investigate corruption, slush funds etc in the LNP.
  • Brandis doesn't have a clue

    about the cost of Mandatory data collection, metadata detail or content, copyright theft & the Internet.
    An Internet subscriber has many alternate ways to achieve their objectives to obtain just about anything they want.
    He's a peanut brain. He has no idea the Internet was designed that way..A yes man who is dumb & stupid !

    If he thinks he can restrain all of our spy & police organisations or any other bureaucratic organisation, (who think THEY know best & what's good for us!) so they will obey the rules he needs to rethink his objectives.
    If he thinks he can impose rules & regulations on them, to prevent them from poking their nose in every aspect of our lives without ever getting a judges approval or his approval or any AG who happens to be in power for that matter, he's out of his tiny mind !

    Asking our spy & police organisations what they would like in the legislation, is worse than letting the fox in the hen house. Every spy organisation on earth wants total & unfettered access to EVERYTHING we do !

    George Orwell forecast it way back in his story about 1984. He was a smart author when he said..

    We've learnt nothing in the mean time.

    I'm all for protecting our country from terrorists, but let's make sure we do it within reason & without restricting our personal freedoms or poking their bureaucratic noses in everyone's private business.
    The Wikileaks & Edward Snowden documents clearly demonstrates just how intrusive all governments & bureaucrats really are! They mostly operate & behave with total disregard for their citizens.

    "Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." - George Orwell

    They forget..they were elected by we the people for the people! to maintain our democratic freedoms, not rule with the heavy hand of autocratic dictatorship..

    Oh! what a tangled web they weave, when first they practise to deceive !
  • Don't make us pay telcos more to snoop on us

    Folks, data retention is costly and it is an unwarranted invasion of our privacy. To those who uses the 'nothing to hide' argument... True, but it's not anyone's business either. You can poke if you think I've done something wrong... But until then stick your nose elsewhere. There are better ways to fight terrorism than storing my flipboard cookies.
    • You can poke if you think I've done something wrong

      That is precisely what I think will happen.

      Don't give them any cause to and they will never check your data. It would be impossibly expensive for them to check every item that goes up onto the internet every day.

      If this action stops one terrorist from blowing up himself, and maybe hundreds of innocent Australians, in a busy street or stops one child from being molested by a group of pedophiles then it is all worth it.

      As I have said, I'm not convinced that there will be any 'unwanted invasion' of your privacy unless you provide the govt. with a good enough reason to do so.
      Gary O'Connor
  • What about later, Gary

    Orwell was prescient in his writings "the animal farm" and "1984". This push (to retain information on all) is a clear indicator of this.

    I'll introduce my own slogan - it has more than 3 words so it might be difficult for some:

    "Only the corrupt need to police the innocent".

    But think of it this way.

    You might have confidence in this government (after all - there are still those who believe in the generosity of Nigerian princes!).

    But what of the next (government) - will you be happy with their intentions?

    Or the government after that - what of them?

    It is not about the likelihood of the current government persecuting you or I, nor of the intentions of any particular government, it's about giving the capacity (to persecute without scrutiny) to future "leaders".

    Is it suitable to make available such information to a government that lies, misleads, grafts - that is vindictive, idealogical and elitist?

    If this does not describe the current lot - what of the next?

    It's also worth noting that the current government's penchant for secrecy sits unwell with this further abdication of democratic process - the cliche "operational security" might sit well in a war - but when applied to social matters it sits very suspiciously.
  • Over cautious?

    You are living in fear of a government that does not exist.

    While I understand that your concerns would have foundation if such a government were to arrive, there are other forces in play that can prevent that from happening.

    Our voting system means that we can choose our government and bad governments, like the last Labor Party in Australia, get removed from office and will not get back in until they convince us that they deserve another chance.

    Here is 'a dose of reality' for you, should a corrupt government circumvent the system and take control then them having access to your internet usage records might be the least of your concerns.

    The odd thing is that you seem to be afraid of an 'evil' future government but are not at all concerned about the proliferation of real terrorists and other real people with 'evil' intent that currently exist in our community that this legislation might just be able to weed out before their real 'evil' intentions are allowed to become a reality?

    Bring it on I say.
    Gary O'Connor