Security agencies get access to 2 yrs of Australians’ phone, internet records

Reuters / Daniel Munoz
A law forcing Australian phone and internet companies to keep records for two years has been passed by both houses of parliament. The new legislation will allow security agencies access to this data, who say it’s necessary for anti-terrorism measures.

Despite privacy-based objections from minor Australian parties, the right-wing Coalition government teamed up with the centrist opposition Labor Party to get the bill through the Senate – a week after the bill passed in the House of Representatives. The legislation passed with 43 votes for and 16 against, despite last minute lobbying by the Green Party to make amendments to the law. The bill now only has to be given royal assent, which is a formality.

Labor announced last week that it would vote with the Coalition to make sure the law, which will force phone and internet companies to hold on to data for two years, was passed after the two parties agreed to make a number of amendments, including providing extra protection to journalists. This was enabled in order to protect whistleblowers and anonymous sources.

Senator Nick Xenophon, who had sought more stringent protections for journalists following the Senate’s decision, said the new laws were “like a python, further put the squeeze on investigative journalism and whistleblowers in this country,” the Australian newspaper reported.

A senator for the Green Party, Scott Ludlam, said the legislation contained “the DNA of both of the major parties” and “entrenches a form of passive surveillance over 23 million Australians,” The Guardian reported.

“The ALP (Australian Labor Party) has caved into Tony Abbott’s self-interested fear campaign and supported the bill,” Ludlam said. “You failed to turn up. You will be judged for that … We will remember this in 2016 and we will not let others forget.”

The government says around 85 percent of security and policing agencies will have access to the data, which they say is essential to help thwart potential terrorist attacks and activity. Politicians have not revealed how much the new law will cost to implement, but it is believed it could cost in the region of US$313 million.

The costs could be passed on to internet and phone users, with a review commissioned by the government saying the scheme would cost customers an extra 4 AUD (US$3.12) per year, if taxpayer’s money was not provided.

Labor Senator Jacinta Collins said the mandatory data retention, which is due to be enabled in 2017, was “not mass surveillance.”

“Information that is recorded is not necessarily accessed. We have built a strong system with checks and balances to ensure that we have that balance right,” she told The Guardian.

The new legislation will still require security agencies to obtain a warrant before accessing the actual content of messages or conversations. However, they will be able to access the time, date and location of a communication.