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With the controversial metadata retention laws now in effect, Rob Idol explains why we should be concerned, and very, very afraid.
As you read this, the controversial metadata retention laws are upon us. Telecommunication providers in Australia are now required to retain certain data about your usage habits which can be accessed by a number of Government agencies without a warrant. Whilst most of this information was previously available (although not required to be retained), it was only available via a warrant from a judge (effectively meaning the Government needed to meet a burden of proof that there was a legitimate need to invade your privacy).
Hyperbole aside, is it that big of a deal? Is the privacy of everyday innocent citizens being inextricably violated as some suggest?
The best place to start is to have a good look at what data the Federal Government now have unencumbered access to. Based on a quick scan of the legislation, it is plainly obvious that at no point are these laws required to retain, and provide if requested, the actual content of your transmission. They won’t be handing over your emails, they won’t be handing over recordings of your phone calls or the details of your search history.
Obtaining this type of information will still require some level of judicial oversight.
Let’s also be realistic about the current state of our privacy. Most of us willingly hand over more to the two-headed Hydra named Google/Facebook on a daily basis. While we’re more than happy to provide most of our vital information, sites such as these track our browsing/search patterns and cater their advertising based on information collated. Have you ever surmised on the fantastic possibilities of that serendipitous JB Hi-Fi flat screen sale starting at you on your Facebook wall, mere moments after you were browsing for one elsewhere? Despite this new metadata push, there is a large fingerprint out there already containing your deepest and darkest impulses.
So should we really be concerned?
The answer is a resounding yes.
Let’s start with the purpose of these new laws, counterterrorism. Attorney General George Brandis (who may have finally worked out what metadata actually is) indicated that metadata is “the basic building block in nearly every counter-terrorism, counter-espionage and organised and major crime investigation.” So the idea is that with greater access to this type of information, federal agencies will be better placed to track and prevent terrorist activities on our shores. Whilst there may be an element of rationality to this, in reality this legislation will likely bring very little, if any, usable information to these agencies as far as counterterrorism is concerned.
The primary reason for this is that the tracking measures are so easily, and legally, circumvented. By using a variety of applications (some of which you probably already use like Apple’s iMessage or Microsoft’s Skype), you immediately prevent the government from accessing the vast majority of the information they are looking to track. For those looking to be a little bit more security conscious, you can simply invest in a VPN service for about $10 a month that can render your activities almost anonymous to the Government.
Since the “Age of Terror” dawned on Western Society, we have been told time and time again by our governmental betters that terrorist organisations aren’t stupid. They are organised, paranoid and have a strong grasp of how to use modern technology to communicate, whilst simultaneously hiding their activities.
I find it impossible to believe that anyone involved in a credible terrorist threat to our country wouldn’t be able to render themselves protected from metadata retention in under five minutes. Or even if they haven’t quite grasped it, they could simply follow PM Turnbull’s instructions on exactly how to get around it.
All in all, it really seems like a very expensive waste of time at the expense of our right to privacy. Oh yeah, did I mention it’s expected to cost around $300 million by government estimates? (And we know how accurate they usually are when it comes to technology.)
Not to mention that it has been tried before in other countries who all overturned the laws on the basis that they were unconstitutional and that there is absolutely no evidence that they work. In fact, when Germany tried it they only reported a 0.006 percent increase in crime clearance rates; and that was probably some poor mug who made the mistake of calling his mates bragging about the bratwurst he just stole from the supermarket.
With a low chance at success, it makes it difficult not to assume that something more nefarious is afoot; despite the Government’s assurances that this is not an exercise in Mass Surveillance.
Let’s turn our attention to the door that we are opening.
Sure, in their current form, these laws do not provide actual “content” to government agencies…yet. This law allows the Government to obtain private information about us without proving why they need it. In legal terms, it is putting the presumption of guilt on every citizen of this country without a shred of evidence, therefore violating the bedrock presumption of innocence that our legal system is based on. Once that door is slightly ajar, it might become increasingly difficult to stop it falling off its hinges.
If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that keeping data safe in the modern age is indeed a problem. Ashley Madison, eBay, Sony and even the US Military have been victims of significant data theft and hacks. Even if we were to assume that our Government will use the collated information in a responsible and legal way, I don’t think we could possibly hold others to the same standard – especially when you are effectively putting a big “hack me” target on the back of every ISP in this country; and particularly given that there is currently no data breach notification scheme in Australia, meaning even if your data, meta or otherwise, is stolen, your ISP or phone provider is under no obligation to tell you.
At the end of the day, I have absolutely no problem with the Government taking reasonable steps to prevent another Parramatta. Unfortunately, the metadata retention scheme not only misses the mark in terms of practicality and potential success, but also threatens to continue the systematic erosion of our civil liberties.
The balance between our personal freedoms and our security is now more than ever, a tenuous one. Eventually, our hand must be goosed to draw a line in the sand, to not just accept that it’s “for our own good.”
Our leaders aren’t our parents, they are our employees; and as someone that values his presumption of innocence, I’ll be exercising my right to it by reducing the amount of my metadata that the Government has access to, while it’s still legal.