Australian police want telco customer data retained forever

AFP commissioner Tony Negus has admitted that the AFP would like telecommunications companies to retain customer data forever, not just 2 years as proposed.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Australian Federal Police (AFP) commissioner Tony Negus has said that the proposal to retain telecommunications customer data for up to two years was a compromise made with the Attorney-General's Department, and that the law-enforcement agency would ideally like data to be held indefinitely.

Negus appeared before the Joint Committee on Security and Intelligence today, on day one of the two-day hearing into the government's proposed changes to telecommunications-interception legislation. He was joined by NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione and South Australian Police Commissioner Gary Burns.

Law-enforcement agencies are seeking to force Australian telecommunications companies to keep "non-content" communications data of their customers — such as logs on when calls were made, or the destination IP addresses for internet use — for up to two years under the proposal. However, according to Negus, this is less time than the agencies asked for in consultation with the Attorney-General's Department.

"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 said.

Negus said that most of the cases would need data from one or two years previous.

Scipione said that data kept for longer becomes more valuable in investigating crimes such as unsolved homicides.

"It's a bit like a bank deposit; the longer you leave it in, the more interest you gain on it," he said. "Two years is a bit shy on a New South Wales Police perspective."

Burns agreed that so-called "cold case" investigations that are older than a decade are sometimes aided by the availability of telecommunications data.

The telecommunications industry has indicated that to set up systems to retain the data that the agencies are seeking could cost between AU$500 million and AU$700 million. They have suggested that most data required under the European model is only between six months and one year old, and that this would be more appropriate and cost effective.

However, Scipione said that people should not focus on the cost of the system, but rather on the cost to society if this data is not available.

"We often ask the question that is more focused on not what it costs, but what it would cost the men and women of this nation if we didn't have it," he said. "Our motives in this are true and pure. We want to keep Australia the safest nation on the planet."

Earlier in the day, both the Police Integrity Commission and the NSW crime commissioner also suggested that they would like data to be retained for between five and seven years.

Unlike telecommunications interception, or wiretapping, a warrant isn't required in order to obtain non-content communications data today. When it was suggested that a warrant be required, Scipione suggested that it would place an additional burden on police.

Scipione said that ideally, the telecommunications-interception legislation should be rewritten entirely, because simply amending the legislation — which has its origins in the 1970s — would just make it more complex.

"The legislation needs to be re-written from scratch," he said.

The New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties, the Queensland Crime Commission, NSW Young Lawyers, and Ericsson are due to speak before the committee this afternoon.

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