Australian government warrantless data requests pass 500,000

The Australian communications watchdog has revealed that Australian government agencies are accessing more data than we previously thought.

Requests from government agencies for Australian telecommunications customers' phone, internet, and address data surpassed 500,000 in the last financial year, according to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

The figure was revealed in the ACMA's annual report (PDF) released this month. It says that there were 563,012 authorisations granted to government agencies for access to telecommunications "metadata" in the 2013-14 financial year.

Under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act, government agencies can force telecommunications companies to hand over details about their customers, including address, phone number, IP address, call data, SMS data, and other held information without a warrant for the purpose of enforcing the law.

The ACMA recorded that total disclosures amounted to 748,079 for the financial year including to law enforcement for a range of reasons, such as to avert a threat to life, assist the ACMA, or enforce the criminal law of a foreign country.

The number of requests by far exceeds the more than 300,000 requests made in the 2012-13 financial year reported by the Attorney-General's Department in its Telecommunications (Interception and Access) report last year. The report for this year has yet to be tabled in parliament.

A spokesperson for the Attorney-General's Department had not responded to a request for comment on the disparity at the time of writing; however, security agencies such as the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) are not required to publicly report the number of metadata access requests they make.

The department told The Guardian that the difference between the two figures was due to the department only counting the authorisation for a particular person's details. So if the request is made to multiple telcos for that one person's information, the access request is only counted as one from that particular government agency. The ACMA has compiled its report based on data from the telcos themselves, leading to the higher figure.

It comes as Attorney-General George Brandis is moving to introduce legislation that would force the telecommunications companies to retain data the agencies desire for two years. The exact data set is, at this stage, not yet known, but Brandis has said that the set will be outlined in the legislation rumoured to be introduced into parliament in the next few weeks.

The rumours of the government's plan to rush the legislation into parliament has been criticised by the telecommunications representative group, the Communications Alliance, with CEO John Stanton stating that negotiations between the carriers and the government still have "a long way to go".

"It scared the hell out of me, because when I look at where it appears to me to be at, at the moment, the notion that they could bring forward legislation in two weeks from now ... it appears to me unlikely, but if they do, I am scared about the process by which they get to that point," Stanton said in early October.