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Government accessed 820,000 customer records in 2014-15

The ACMA's annual report has revealed the number of account details handed over to Australian government agencies for the year, and for what purposes.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

More than 820,000 customers had their account details revealed to law-enforcement, emergency services, and national security agencies by telecommunications providers during 2014-15, according to a report published by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

In its 10th annual ACMA Annual Report 2014-15 [PDF], tabled in Parliament on Wednesday, the ACMA revealed that 824,841 customers had their details revealed by carriers and carriage service providers (CSPs) during the year under Part 13 of the Telecommunications Act 1997, with the majority of these for enforcing criminal law: 584,029 customer records were handed over for this purpose during 2014-15.

"Customer information provided by telecommunications carriers and CSPs to law-enforcement and national security agencies is protected under Part 13 of the Telecommunications Act," the report says.

"Carriers and CSPs are prohibited from disclosing that information to other parties except in limited circumstances. Those circumstances generally relate to: Assisting in investigations by law-enforcement or national security agencies, or the ACMA, ACCC, TIO, or TUSMA; assisting where there is an imminent threat to a person's life or health; or satisfying the business needs of other carriers and CSPs.

"The ACMA is required under paragraph 57(2)(f) of the ACMA Act to include in its annual report information on disclosures of customer information made during the reporting year."

Customer information provided with the person's knowledge or consent numbered 171,926, while 14,500 were to avert a threat to a person's life or health; 13,106 were authorised or made under law; 10,073 were due to emergency services calls; 8,749 were to assist the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO); 7,206 were for enforcement of a law imposing a pecuniary penalty or protection of public revenue; 4,195 were for locating missing persons; 1,268 were to assist the ACMA; 484 were for those as witnesses under summons; 437 were voluntarily disclosed; 67 were for enforcing a foreign country's criminal law; 11 were to assist the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC); and 6 were connected with an exempt disclosure.
(Image: Screenshot by Corinne Reichert/ZDNet)

By comparison, the 2012-13 financial year saw government requests to all telecommunications companies total 319,874.

In August, Telstra 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; while 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 from Telstra 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.

The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act 2015, which came into force in mid-October, 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 -- which will likely lead to another increase in the numbers of records accessed by government.

The ACMA annual report also delved into the organisation's "renaissance in spectrum management", outlining plans to improve telecommunications coverage through its auctions of the 700MHz and 1800MHz spectrum bands.

"As the national spectrum manager, the ACMA has played a critical role over the last decade in facilitating continued growth in mobile broadband capacity. Australia is currently well placed to provide spectrum for mobile broadband services, and the release of spectrum has been harmonised with international arrangements and is consistent with international standards," said ACMA chairman Chris Chapman.

In May 2013, the government auctioned off spectrum in the 700MHz and 2.5GHz spectrum bands to Telstra, Optus, and TPG for a total of AU$1.96 billion.

The ACMA's annual report pointed towards the administration of AU$2,789.16 million in revenue for 2014-15, up 425 percent from last year's AU$656.98 million, with zero expenses. The ACMA attributed this in large part to the digital dividend spectrum.

"There is increasing demand for access to spectrum in regional and remote areas from various industry sectors to deploy mobile broadband services. The ACMA has identified the 1710-1785MHz and 1805-1880MHz frequency ranges (the 1800MHz band) as the most suitable candidate band to relieve this demand," the report says.

"The ACMA has been working closely with industry and stakeholders to develop appropriate and effective strategies to enable access to the 1800MHz band in regional and remote areas. The ACMA has stated that, in regional areas, spectrum licensing in this band would best accommodate emerging high-value uses of the band such as mobile services."

The ACMA last month began accepting applications from telcos that wish to take part in the 1800MHz spectrum auction in November.

It has been separated into 147 lots, with costs calculated at AU$0.08 per MHz depending on population; spectrum in the 1800MHz band in Darwin starts at AU$106,000, while its starting price in Adelaide is AU$1.13 million.

"Spectrum is a finite natural resource. When demand exceeds supply for spectrum in a band, the ACMA commonly allocates spectrum by auction. This provides a transparent process to establish a market price, ensuring licences are allocated to those who value them most highly," said Chapman in September.

"The ACMA considers that the price paid by bidders at an auction should provide a reasonably accurate indication of the true market value of the spectrum and identify the highest value use of the band."

Diversity of ownership and therefore competition is being promoted, with no party permitted to acquire more than 2x 25MHz of the available spectrum, in spite of the recommendation to the contrary made by incumbent telco Telstra. The spectrum will all be bid on simultaneously.

In May this year, the government announced its plan to auction off the regional 1800MHz spectrum, after the ACMA had recommended an auction be held. The 1800MHz band is used in metropolitan areas by Telstra, Vodafone, and Optus to deliver their 4G networks, but has primarily been used in remote Australia for point-to-point backhaul services. The reallocation of the spectrum will ensure that it is used to bring faster connection speeds to those living in regional areas.

The ACMA last month also updated its five-year outlook on spectrum usage, releasing two reports that outline how the telecommunications sector can deal with the growth in mobile broadband usage and technologies.

Its Five-year spectrum outlook 2015-19 [PDF] (FYSO) report outlines strategies for how the industry could address the allocation, regulation, and licensing of spectrum within Australia in response to growing demand in the face of new wireless technologies.

"The FYSO is an annual update that the ACMA has been using since 2009, both as a key transparency measure and to solicit feedback from interested parties. Stakeholders can use the FYSO to identify when the ACMA expects a particular work program to start and to understand the priorities it intends applying to particular activities," said Chapman.

"The challenge of balancing the needs of existing spectrum users with facilitating access for new technologies and for broader applications is an increasing focus for the ACMA, as access to spectrum has become a key driver of productivity in a digitised economy."

The report describes the ACMA's processes for making decisions on allocation and licensing, indicates what the ACMA predicts will occur over the next year, and outlines the ACMA's short- and long-term plans, including responding to 5G, M2M, and the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Towards 2020: Future spectrum requirements for mobile broadband [PDF], released at the same time, presented the ACMA's mobile broadband spectrum plans for the future.

"For over a decade, the need to accommodate growth in mobile broadband traffic has been the biggest driver of changes in the use of radiofrequency spectrum," Chapman said.

The ACMA said mobile broadband traffic is far outstripping previous predictions, with additional spectrum needing to be allocated, and more flexible and responsive planning necessary for the future.

"We are signalling a shift towards greater reliance on a contingency planning model, where the regulator plans for a range of potential outcomes in terms of mobile broadband capacity growth, but nonetheless seeks to enable the right spectrum to be made available, at the right time, depending on the scenarios that are unfolding," Chapman explained.

To deal with the growth in traffic and explosion of new technologies, the ACMA has put forward strategies to re-farm and reallocate broadband spectrum.

Last year's ACMA annual report focused on the revelation that for the first time since the introduction of mobile phone services in Australia, the number of active services fell, suggesting that the market had finally reached saturation.

"Mobile services are now at saturation levels, with 2013-14 seeing the first, albeit small, decline in the number of mobile services in operation to 31.01 million mobile services -- a 0.3 percent decline on the previous year," the report said.

"There is evidence of a similar slowdown occurring in the growth of internet connections, with approximately 81 percent of Australians (14.7 million) having an internet connection in the home, with growth slowing over the past three years."

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