​Australian lawmakers can't use phones, will vote on data retention

If MPs can't even be bothered to learn about the work tools they use every day, what hope is there for intelligent debate on mandatory data retention?
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor on

"Exclusive: About 15 federal MPs fear their phones may have been hacked," wrote the Herald Sun on Tuesday morning. Members of parliament had reported "problems with their smartphones". Some had received messages from colleagues that hadn't been sent. Others apparently said that messages hadn't arrived.

"The concern is what data, if any, may have been accessed if the phones have indeed been interfered with," the news report said. "At least one senior minister's phone is thought to have been involved."

Goodness me. A coordinated mass hack of lawmakers' smartphones? This is serious.

Oh, wait.

The Herald Sun report also said that the problems "start[ed] about 5pm last night", and that "MPs involved have been told to disable the iMessage capacity of their mobile phones".

Just hours before that, at 1.24pm AEDT, BuzzFeed published a story with the headline "People Are Harassing Government MPs With Hilarious Apple iMessages".

One of iMessage's features is that by default, you can locate users by their email address without knowing their phone number. This strikes me as a sensible feature, since users will probably have more devices than just an iPhone, and they'll want to receive their iMessages on all of them.

And I suspect that most people generally think of their phone numbers as "more private" than their email addresses.

So it looks like some MPs -- or their staffers -- had linked iMessage to their official email addresses, the ones that are published on the Australian parliament's website and elsewhere, and then got confused when unexpected messages popped up. Then, when some were told by IT support staff to turn off the iMessage linkage, they got confused when expected messages didn't turn up.

Those 15-odd MPs probably weren't across that BuzzFeed story, though, because their staffers hadn't got around to printing it out and marking the key sentences with a highlighter. They must've missed the Sydney Morning Herald story published at 6.38pm as well, because ... oh, bees or something.

Those 15-odd MPs -- or their staffers -- must also be so clueless about the capabilities and operation of their smartphones that their first reaction to any unexpected behaviour is to assume that they've been hacked.

This does not bode well.

"I've been hacked" is, of course, the current phrase used by the technologically illiterate to explain anything unexpected that happens on their computer or other device, or to explain away anything they want to deny ever doing. It's the new "The dog ate my homework".

A decade or so back, as any helpdesk staffer old enough will tell you, it was "My computer has a virus". And a decade or two before that, the excuse was cosmic rays crashed my computer.

It's a good thing these 15-odd MPs don't have to think about anything more complicated than how iMessages get to their phones, right?

Oh, wait.

This week, parliament is expected to debate legislation for Australia's controversial mandatory telecommunications data-retention regime.

Oh, dear.

Now, it's bad enough -- though perhaps understandable, given human nature -- that MPs fail to read the full text of every piece of legislation they're called to vote upon, let alone understand all of its nuances. You can't be an expert in everything. But wouldn't it be nice if MPs chose to become just a little bit informed on the subject in question?

It's bad enough that Philip Ruddock MP, one of the long-standing members of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security (JPCIS), during a recent committee hearing (PDF) on data retention, said: "I am very ignorant of these matters -- Skype is a telephone you use on a computer."

But here we have clear evidence that 15-odd MPs haven't even bothered taking the time to learn about the tools they use in their job every single day. Just how stupid and lazy is that?

By mid-morning Tuesday, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull had gone on record: Pranking MPs with messages is not hacking. So there's one MP with a bit of clue. And in the Senate, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam has put in the effort to understand the implications of data retention. Two. Former Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy, I'd say. Three. A handful of junior MPs that nobody pays any attention to. We're up to 10, maybe. Anybody else? Anyone at all? Bueller?

It's looking like data retention will be voted upon -- and voted in, because Labor seems to be caving on this issue -- by a bunch of politicians who literally have no idea what they're dealing with.

"Ignorant Oz politicians prevent meaningful metadata debate", I wrote two years ago. Nothing has changed.

Well done, everybody. Well done, Australia.

Editorial standards