Data retention little more than surveillance tax: Ludlam

Senator Scott Ludlam has labelled the Australian government's proposed data-retention scheme as little more than a surveillance tax, while calling for the release of a financial study into the scheme.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

The Australian Senate has passed a motion calling for the release of a study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) into the financial concerns and implications of the Australian government's proposed mandatory data-retention legislation on Monday.

The motion was passed by 38 votes to 28 against, with Senator Scott Ludlam saying that the implementation of the legislation would be an extremely costly exercise.

"Malcolm Turnbull recently introduced a Bill for a mandatory data-retention proposal, which would force telecommunications providers — many of them very unwillingly, I should say — to warehouse huge volumes of private data effectively belonging to all of us: From young children to High Court judges, to diplomats, to ordinary Australians right across the country; every man, woman, and child; every device in the country," he said.

"It amounts to little more than a surveillance tax. One that was not announced before the election."

Ludlam called for the report to be released in order for the public to know how much the scheme would cost.

In response to Ludlam, Liberal Senator Mitch Fifield said that the report's release would be unethical, and would violate the confidence of those who contributed information to the report.

"The consultancy report was created for the purpose of informing Cabinet; it contains commercially confidential and potentially market-sensitive information provided by key participants in the telecommunications industry," Fifield said.

"The government undertook to engage with industry in good faith, and on the understanding that the information they would provide the government via PricewaterhouseCoopers would be kept confidential. To disclose confidential information in this way would be a flagrant breach of that understanding.

"The government has been transparent and open about the policy and legislative matters on this issue, and is committed to ongoing engagement with all stakeholders."

In the month since the mandatory data-retention legislation was introduced, the scheme has been called an intrusion on privacy by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has also confirmed that copyright holders such as film studios could sue ISPs to get hold of data retained in order to sue users downloading copyright-infringing material.

"A requirement to collect and retain data on every customer just in case that data is needed for law-enforcement purposes is very intrusive of privacy, and raises an issue of proportionality," the human rights committee said in its report.

"Communications data can reveal quite personal information about an individual, even without the content of the data being made available, revealing who a person is in contact with, how often, and where. This in turn may reveal the person's political opinions, sexual habits, religion, or medical concerns.

"The proposed scheme clearly limits the right to privacy. The committee therefore considers that the scheme must be sufficiently circumscribed to ensure that limitations on the right to privacy are proportionate (that is, are only as extensive as is strictly necessary)," it said.

The data-retention legislation is currently before the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security, which is not due to report back until early next year. However, the committee is only made up of members from the major parties.

"That committee is a boys' club. After the September election, the Abbott government eliminated the only cross-bench member of that committee, which was Andrew Wilkie, who is formerly of the intelligence community and is worth listening to on this stuff," Ludlam said in October.

"Since then, you've seen deals done behind closed doors, and a lot of evidence taken in-camera and off the public record.

"We are putting the Labor Party on notice: Stand up straight, read the damn Bill this time, and start behaving like an opposition party."

Despite the Senate having voted for the release of the PwC report, the government cannot be compelled to release the document, and has in the past shown its willingness to defy the Senate.

In July, the government prevented the release of the source code to the Australian Electoral Commission's (AEC) EasyCount software on the basis that it could lead to the manipulation, or even hacking, of the software.

"I am advised that the AEC classifies the relevant software as commercial-in-confidence, as it also underpins the industrial and fee-for-service election counting systems," Special Minister of State Michael Ronaldson said in a letter at the time.

The motion to release the source code came after a long Freedom of Information dispute between the AEC and Michael Cordover, who had sought a copy of the software's source code in October last year. A year after the dispute began, the matter remains before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

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