Who Brandis called censored and deemed not relevant to democracy

The very type of records that Attorney-General George Brandis would like Australian telecommunications companies to retain from customers for two years have been deemed too personal for release under Freedom of Information when they belong to him.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

The metadata for Australian Attorney-General George Brandis has been censored for being too personal to release under Freedom of Information.

Image: Screenshot by Josh Taylor/ZDNet

In August, Brandis announced that the government would move ahead with plans to introduce legislation requiring Australian telecommunications companies to keep logs of their customers' calls, emails, IP addresses, and other so-called metadata for two years.

At the time, the government had not defined the set of data it wanted retained, and famously, Brandis struggled to explain in a television interview whether a history of the websites that every Australian visited would also be required to be kept.

Seeking to discover what the government's understanding of metadata is, ZDNet filed a Freedom of Information request with the Attorney-General's Department for "all of Attorney-General George Brandis' telecommunications metadata (under the government's understood definition of metadata) between September 7, 2013, and July 29, 2014".

Image: Screenshot of parliament broadcast stream by Josh Taylor/ZDNet

The department initially sought to charge over AU$600 to consider the request, but reduced the cost of processing to AU$14 when ZDNet in October narrowed the request down from 10 months to the month of July.

The request was then transferred to the attorney-general's office, and yesterday, the office released one censored 17-page Telstra bill (PDF), along with a lengthy decision for releasing, and ultimately censoring, the document.

Brandis' chief of staff Paul O'Sullivan said in the letter that the government has "no statutory definition" for metadata, and had determined the metadata from the Definition of Telecommunications Data document (PDF) circulated by the government in 2012. As a result, the Telstra bill was the only identifiable document held by the government relating to Brandis' metadata.

The decision to entirely censor the document was due to the bill containing "personal information about a number of individuals' telephone numbers", as well as the time and origin of the calls.

"Disclosure of the personal information in the document is unreasonable," O'Sullivan said, adding that who Brandis had talked to on the phone and when is not relevant information.

"I am not persuaded that the personal information is of any demonstrable relevance to the affairs of government. Indeed, I contend disclosure of the personal information may cause stress or harm to a number of third parties."

O'Sullivan said a complete list of who has the ear of the highest law maker in Australia was deemed not relevant to democracy in Australia.

"I consider that personal information from an individual minister's telephone bill is unlikely to contribute significantly to promotion of Australia's representative democracy."

O'Sullivan said that the release would "prejudice the protection of an individual's right to privacy".

Under the government's legislation, only specified law-enforcement agencies or those approved by the attorney-general of the day can access stored telecommunications customer data. However, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has also confirmed that third parties, such as copyright litigants, could obtain the records through the courts.

Although the legislation has been entered into the parliament, the government is still working to define an actual set of data that the telecommunications companies would be required to retain. This data set would be defined in regulation, rather than legislation, allowing the government to change the data retained without needing to pass new legislation.

The Australian Securities and Investment Commission is already pushing for the government to widen access to metadata to include the commission, writing to Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and Attorney-General George Brandis and asking to be added to the list of agencies included in the legislation.

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