Australian metadata bill proposes phone, internet record storage for 2yrs

Reuters / Jason Lee
A new bill that would force Australian telecom firms to store clients' personal data to help law enforcement agencies track down extremists conspiring to carry out acts of terrorism has attracted the scrutiny of analysts.

Committee chair, Liberal MP Dan Tehan, said the legislation forwards 38 recommendations to enhance safeguards.

"These recommendations, which are all bipartisan, will ensure that those mechanisms there operate efficiently and effectively and the public can be confident the regime is being used appropriately," he said, as quoted by Sky News.

The future success of turning the bill into law, however, largely hinges on the question of metadata, and, more specifically, what the definition of metadata is.

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While experts fail to agree on a single definition, the government wants the freedom to determine the definition of metadata without consulting with MPs should the bill become law.

The government has previously explained metadata as the information that is contained on an envelope, including the name of the sender, the recipient and their relative addresses. The contents of the letter inside of the envelope, however, would be off limits for prying eyes.

The metadata with telephone calls is similar, with only the numbers contacted, the duration, time and date of the call. The contents of the conversation would not be recorded.

Providing a definition of internet metadata, however, poses an altogether different problem, and one that the government apparently does not wish to consider in a public and transparent manner.

This presents a problem for security experts and privacy advocates alike. Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee has called for the definition to be put down in the legislation rather than decided later by government.

University of New South Wales Law Professor George Williams told AP the recommendations addressed his two major issues with the bill: that it does not define what metadata was, while not disclosing who could access it.

Opposition has come from the Greens, with Senator Scott Ludlam saying the proposed changes to the bill did not amount to much.

"We're really concerned that the Labor Party, instead of treating this proposal with the skepticism that it deserves, appears to have thrown Prime Minister Tony Abbott some kind of mass surveillance lifeline," Ludlam said, as quoted by ABC News of Australia.

Attorney-General George Brandis supported the legislation, emphasizing the importance of storing metadata.

"Metadata is used in virtually all serious criminal investigations, including murder, sexual assault, child exploitation and kidnapping investigations,” he said. Brandis appears to be better versed in metadata than he was last August when, in an interview with Sky News Australia, he became utterly lost on the issue.

Meanwhile, several Australian firms have expressed concern that any new storage requirements for clients’ metadata would cost millions of dollars.

At the same time, since Australians are notorious for being some of the biggest offenders of illegally downloading movies and video games, many fear that any future legal action on the part of law enforcement will extend beyond the hunt for terrorists.