Government surveillance requests to Telstra rise

As the Australian government looks to force telcos to retain customer data for law-enforcement investigations, the number of requests for customer data that Telstra is receiving from Australian law-enforcement agencies has risen in the last six months.

Australian government agencies were making more requests for private customer information from Telstra in the last six months of the financial year than in the first six months, the company's first annual transparency report has revealed.

In the full year from July 1, 2013, until June 30, 2014, Telstra acted on 84,949 requests from Australian government agencies to assist in a range of ways, from providing personal customer information to blocking websites. This excludes national security agency requests, such as those from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), which is exempt from reporting such requests.

The second half of the financial year saw an increase in the number of requests, up to 44,305, from 40,644 in the first six months .

Telstra explained on its website today that the most requests (75,448) for the year were related to customer information, carriage service records, and pre-warrant checks. This is metadata that the government agencies can access without a warrant, and the type of data the Australian government is currently developing legislation to force the telecommunications companies to retain for two years.

While Attorney-General George Brandis initially said that the scheme would seek to retain the "electronic address" of websites that users visit, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull later clarified that data retention would not include browsing history. Telstra was at pains to point out that in its own disclosures, the company did not include web-browsing history.

"Internet session information includes the date, time, and duration of internet sessions, as well as email logs from BigPond addresses. This does not include URLs. The government has stated URLs are considered to be content, and as such they will only request to access this information under a warrant or other court order," the company stated.

However, Telstra has, in the past, disclosed URLs as part of its obligations to law enforcement. The company admitted in a statement to ZDNet last month that URLs had been handed over, but the last instance was more than 12 months ago.

"We do not collect URLs as a normal part of providing customer services, and only in rare cases have we provided any URL data to agencies. For example, the last time we did so was in relation to a life-threatening situation involving a child more than 12 months ago."

The transparency report breaks out a separate section for customer information access provided to emergency services in life-threatening situations, and said that in the last financial year, Telstra received 6,202 requests of this kind.

Telstra received 598 court orders, and 2,701 warranted requests for stored communications.

In the last financial year, the company received 104,000 requests for customer information contained in the Integrated Public Number Database, which is used by law-enforcement agencies to determine a name and address associated with a phone number.

Internationally, Telstra said it received fewer than 100 requests from government agencies in countries that Telstra operates outside of Australia.

None of the other Australia telcos publish the exact detail of the number of requests they receive of this nature from Australian government agencies at this point. Vodafone's parent company broke down total government requests across the board in June , but has left out the specifics about its Australian division.

The total metadata requests from law-enforcement agencies (excluding ASIO and other national security agencies) to all Australian telecommunications for the last financial year will not be known until the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) annual report is tabled in parliament towards the end of the calendar year.

In the 2012-13 financial year , government requests to telecommunications companies reached a total of 319,874.