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Government access to Telstra customer information jumps by 6 percent

Australian telecommunications company Telstra has revealed that it provided access more than 90,000 times to customer information over the course of the last financial year.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor on

Telstra has released its transparency report for the 2014-15 financial year, revealing that it had acted on 90,106 requests for customer information, an increase of 6 percent, or 5,157 more requests, from the previous year.

According to a breakdown of statistics by the type of law-enforcement request, Telstra customer information, carriage service records, and pre-warrant checks accounted for the majority of the customer information requests and numbered 79,188, an increase of 5 percent over last year's 75,448; life-threatening situations and Triple Zero emergency calls led to the access of 7,485 counts of customer information, a 21 percent rise over last year's 6,202; and warrants for interception or access to stored communications rose by 5.4 percent, from 2,701 in 2013-14 to 2,846 in 2014-15.

Customer details being accessed through court orders was the only category to fall, with 587 account details accessed -- a drop of 2 percent from the previous year's 598.

These numbers exclude any details accessed by national security agencies such as the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, as disclosing these figures is illegal under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979.

Australia's incumbent telco also detailed exactly what customer information details are given out upon complying with an access request.

"Customer information refers to details that appear on a phone bill, such as the customer's name, address, service number, and connection dates. It can include other information we may hold such as a customer's date of birth and previous address. Carriage service records relate to use of telecommunications services, including call records, SMS records, and internet records. These records include information such as details of a called party, and the date, time and duration of a call," the telco said.

"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."

Telstra said that it rarely blocks websites, however.

"From time to time, Telstra receives requests from government agencies to take actions at an infrastructure level to prevent a crime. For example, Telstra blocks the Interpol-generated 'worst of the worst' list of child abuse sites under a Section 313 request," the telco explained.

"These network or infrastructure level requests are relatively infrequent and generally do not involve the disclosure of customer information."

In September last year, Telstra reported complying with 84,949 requests from Australian government agencies to provide personal customer information and additionally block websites for the period of July 1, 2013, until June 30, 2014.

The second half of the 2013-14 financial year saw a significant rise in the number of requests, up to 44,305 from 40,644 in the first six months.

The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act 2015, passed by the Australian government in March thanks to the votes of the Labor opposition, will see customers' call records, location information, IP addresses, billing information, and other data stored for two years, accessible without a warrant by law-enforcement agencies.

Despite its support in passing the legislation, however, the Labor party last month at its 2015 ALP National Conference passed an amendment to its Draft National Platform to include a review of the law, saying it creates "a culture of fear" and invades the privacy of Australian citizens.

"These laws help create a culture of fear, a culture where we are all under suspicion and subject to heightened mass surveillance," New South Wales Labor MP Jo Haylen said.

"The challenge for lawmakers is to strike the right balance ... between privacy and security, between transparency and strength, and between the power of government and the rights of citizens. The government's data-retention laws do not strike the right balance, and neither does Labor's support of these laws."

Specifically, Labor is moving to review the regulation of warrants and the list of agencies that can access the communications data.

"Labor wants to ensure that the types of agencies with access to the data and purposes for which the data is available are appropriate. We want to ensure that the current warrants scheme and the threshold conditions on warrantless access are appropriate and that freedom of the press is protected," the amendment says.

Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) and Internet Australia welcomed the review, adding that the protection of privacy and of journalists' sources is paramount. A provision was added to the Bill in March that requires agencies to obtain a warrant in order to access the communications data of journalists, although Attorney-General George Brandis disagreed that this was necessary.

"It's reassuring to see that within the wider ALP, there remains an understanding of the importance of meaningful protections for individual privacy, and for the protection of whistle-blowers and other journalists' sources," EFA chair David Cake said last week.

"It's unfortunate, however, that the party leadership chose to allow this badly flawed legislation to pass the parliament despite these concerns. EFA looks forward to the opportunity to participate in a review of this legislation, should the ALP form government after the next election."

The government announced in its 2015 Budget in May that it would allocate AU$131.3 million to the scheme; however, Communications Alliance CEO John Stanton said this amount was predicted to cover between only one-third and half of the estimated cost to ISPs.

The 2012-13 financial year saw government requests to all telecommunications companies number a total of 319,874.

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