Budget 2015: Telcos get AU$131 million for data-retention costs

The Australian government has offered to fund between less than half and one third of the estimated costs for telecommunications companies to store communications data for law enforcement.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

The government will contribute AU$131 million toward the cost of Australian telecommunications companies creating and maintaining systems to store all Australians' telecommunications data for two years for warrantless access by law enforcement.

Data-retention legislation passed in March will force Australian telecommunications companies to retain customer data, including call records, assigned IP addresses, text message details, and location data, for two years. Australia's law-enforcement agencies can then access this data with only internal approval, and without judicial oversight -- except when accessing the data of a journalist for the purpose of investigating a leak.

One major unknown when the legislation passed was whether any government funding would be provided for the telcos to build and operate systems for the scheme.

At the time, the government said the scheme would cost up to AU$400 million to set up, and around AU$4 per customer per year to run. In the Budget released on Tuesday, Treasurer Joe Hockey said that a total of AU$450 million had been allocated to national security, "to ensure we have the very best equipment and skills necessary to keep our communities safe". The government has allocated AU$131.3 million over three years to build the capability to store call records, email logs, assigned IP addresses, and other so-called metadata systems, but no money had been allocated for the costs of operating the systems.

The CEO of the Communications Alliance, John Stanton, said on ABC Radio on Tuesday that while the funding is welcome, it will only cover between one third and 50 percent of the actual estimated cost.

"Nobody has a precise idea of [the costs]," Stanton said.

He said that telcos would likely get a better idea of the actual cost as they work with the government to implement the scheme, but said he didn't think the government would want to offer more funding.

"Operational experience will give the full idea of the cost," he said.

Greens Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam said that taxpayers are being forced to pay a tax for government spying.

"We suspected this was coming. I don't know that the amount is a particular surprise to anybody, but this on behalf of the Abbott government and the Labor Party is a AU$131 million internet tax which will be coming directly from [the] taxpayer so that they can be spied upon -- so that they can effectively be surveilled," he said.

"I think that it's an absolute disgrace, and what we do know is that it probably amounts to less than half the total amount of running the data-retention mass surveillance program."

The Internet Society of Australia CEO Laurie Patton said the government should guarantee to top up the funding if it is inadequate for all internet service providers (ISPs).

"The government's original cost estimate was not based on widespread industry consultation, and the Internet Society is concerned that the costs have been significantly underestimated, especially in respect of small to medium-sized ISPs that don't have the resources to undertake the work in-house, and therefore will be required to pay for external assistance," he said in a statement.

A total of AU$153.8 million will be spent on the scheme in this Budget.

Aside from funding for telcos, AU$10.6 million over four years will go to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, the Attorney-General's Department, and the Human Rights Commission to provide technical guidance to telcos, and undertake technical and risk assessments, as well as developing standards and specifications for data retention.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman will receive AU$6.7 million for its oversight role in the scheme. The Privacy Commissioner will also receive AU$4.2 million over four years for oversight of the privacy implications arising from the scheme and the Foreign Fighters legislation.

The Australian Secret Intelligence Service also received AU$295.8 million over six years to "strengthen capabilities", including an IT upgrade.

AU$22 million has been allocated to "challenge terrorist propaganda online".

"This new commitment comprises a multifaceted effort to understand, limit access to, and undermine the appeal of extremist propaganda," Attorney-General George Brandis said.

In other funding for the agency, the Attorney-General's Department said it still intends to shut down the Office of the Australia Information Commissioner once legislation passes the Senate, but in the meantime allocated AU$1.7 million in transition funding for 2015-16 to ensure that the office can function until its closure. The number of staff members in the office will increase from 64 in this financial year to 72 in 2015-16.

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