Whether telecommunications service providers are forced to store location data on their mobile phone users to within a kilometre or a few metres is a matter much too technical for the data-retention Bill that is currently before the Australian Senate, Attorney-General George Brandis has said.
In response to questions from Greens Senator Scott Ludlam as to what the resolution of location data stored for two years would be, and how the location would be determined off mobile base stations, the attorney-general would not provide further details beyond those set out in the legislation.
"A technical question of that kind is well beyond the scope of the Bill," Brandis said. "There will be an implementation phase ... over 18 months after this Bill is enacted, and one of the principle purposes of the implementation phase is to enable the operationalisation of these obligations by the ISPs and the telecommunication service providers to be settled -- that's not what this Bill does, that's not what the Bill purports to do."
Brandis said that the intention of the data-retention legislation is not to "follow people around", and refuted claims made last week by Telstra's chief information security officer Mike Burgess that the telco would need to store data it does not presently retain.
"This is an obligation to maintain the status quo. It is also an obligation to regularise and standardise that which is done across the industry," he said.
By standardising the retention of metadata, Brandis said that some companies would need to retain more data and keep it for a longer period than they do so now, whereas other service providers may retain data for a shorter period of time.
"When you standardise something where the practice is variable, obviously in standardising that practice, there will be required of some companies greater or lesser obligations that they might currently observe. But as a general proposition, the obligation ... reflects practice across the industry.
"Just as with the duration of the retention of metadata, so with the data set there'll be some ISPs, some telephone companies that retain all of that data; some that retain some, but not other of that data; some that retain data that is beyond the obligation described.
"The effect of the legislation is to freeze the status quo," he said.
The data-retention Bill is currently being debated in the Senate following its passage through the House of Representatives last week.
The Australian Greens party announced yesterday that it intends to amend the Bill to force law-enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant for each access request, and limit the storage period to three months. However, each Greens amendment put to a vote on Wednesday was voted down.
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull conceded on Tuesday that the vast majority of metadata queries made by police are to determine who owns a phone.
"Let's say somebody is killed, and they find on their phone a number of received calls from certain telephone numbers," Turnbull said. "They use this metadata access ability to go to the telco and say, 'Right, here are all these numbers. Who are the account holders of these numbers?' They give the police those names, and they can contact those people and say, 'What do you know about this? The person you called an hour before, is now dead'.
"So the vast majority of these checks are just designed to find out who actually owns a phone, who is using it."
Brandis compared to a sniffer dog
Liberal Democrats Senator David Leyonhjelm said he believes Brandis may be more obedient to police than their sniffer dogs.
Leyonhjelm expressed concerns that Brandis is bowing to the wishes of law-enforcement and security agencies over data-retention laws currently being debated.
"The suggestion has been made that the attorney-general is more obedient to the AFP [Australian Federal Police] than some of their sniffer dogs," Leyonhjelm told reporters in Canberra.
Leyonhjelm, the Greens party, and independent Senator Nick Xenophon all oppose the new measures, with each proposing amendments to the draft laws.
Xenophon wants tougher protections for journalists and their sources, claiming the new laws could dissuade whistleblowers.
All are concerned that adding more data to that already available won't do anything to prevent terrorism.
Adding more hay to the haystack would not help find the needle, they said.
The AFP has admitted that the new regime would not have prevented Man Haron Monis, who was already known to authorities, from carrying out the Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney.
Leyonhjelm believes there's nothing stopping government agencies from accessing data for any purpose, not just crime and terrorism.
"The end result is the Bill will cover all sorts of silly things," he said, adding that it could include tracking down people whose dogs foul the pavement.
A Senate vote on the proposed new laws may take place later on Wednesday.