The chair of the Parliamentary committee that investigated requests from Australia's law enforcement agencies for telecommunications companies to retain valuable customer data for up to two years for access by government agencies has called on the Coalition government to bring on data retention legislation before a terrorist attack occurs in Australia.
The last report from the Attorney-General's Department revealed that a wide range of local, state, and federal government agencies accessed telecommunications customer data 319,874 times in the 2012-2013 financial year as part of investigations into Australians believed to be breaching the law. The data, which the government prefers to describe as "metadata", is a comprehensive history of the time, date, location, and recipient information about telephone calls, emails, and other communications.
A warrant is not required to access the data because agencies argue that telecommunications customer data does not include content.
The government agencies have been complaining that due to changes in the way customers are billed today, the data stored by the telecommunications companies is not kept for as long as the agencies believe it is required.
They have argued that telecommunications companies should be required to store this data for up to two years, but face strong opposition from privacy advocates and some internet service providers, such as iiNet, arguing that the request forces ISPs to be "intelligence agents of the state" and would lead to increased prices for customers.
The most recent parliamentary inquiry into the matter left the decision on data retention to government, and although the Coalition government has recently moved to enact some of the recommendations from the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security's 2013 report for stronger spy agency powers, mandatory data retention was not part of the planned legislation.
In a speech to Parliament today, Labor MP Anthony Byrne, who chaired the parliamentary committee, called on the government to implement a mandatory data retention regime before a major incident in Australia occurs.
"If a government is concerned and is making the right noises about being concerned about this nation's security, it must give its agencies all of the suite of the powers that it needs to deal with the terrorist threat. And it has not done so," he said.
"I would urge the attorney-general... to bring all of the suites of the powers that the intelligence agencies have been asking for for some period of time...to the parliament at its earliest opportunity."
He said that the powers should be brought before the parliament so the public can debate the need for data retention.
"I don't want to see data retention debated in this chamber, and the chamber below, after an event has occurred on Australian soil."
The government reportedly has no plans this stage to implement data retention, and a separate Senate committee is also currently reviewing data retention, with public hearings scheduled later this month, and a report to be tabled at the end of August.
The news comes as last week the UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced sweeping new emergency surveillance legislation that would force telecommunications companies in the country to retain customer data for up to 12 months.