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Storing your personal web data helps the government snoop on you

The data retention plan goes against public and industry opinion and raises mainly questions about its true motives, writes Andrew Passarello.

In 2010, then Attorney-General Robert McLelland revealed that plans for a data retention policy were being considered, requiring all internet service providers to track the web activities of Australians. At the time, McLelland’s office insisted it was “not about web browser history”, but solely intending to “track and verify identities online”.

Since then, a parliamentary committee has been set up and opened to submissions from the general public. So far, the committee has published 177 of these submissions, the vast majority of which are overwhelmingly opposed to any data retention scheme. Current Attorney-General Nicola Roxon herself said in July this year that “the case has yet to be made” for the plan.

So one would be puzzled as to why Roxon came out last week in support of the scheme, which would store the internet activity of Australians for two years. The scope of the proposal is alarming. The changes would, for example, make it an offence to not provide passwords for encrypted material on request.

Roxon has defended the plans, insisting they are crucial for law enforcement. Citing the murder of Cabramatta MP John Newman as an example, she argued that phone records at the time “allowed police to reconstruct the crime scene”. Veracity of these claims aside, it is an unconvincing argument given the sheer quantity of data this proposal would collect and collate.

Andrew Lewman is the executive director of the Tor software project, an ‘onion routing’ network that provides anonymity online, and said in July that while the proposal sounds like “something sexy that politicians should get behind”, it fails to stop crime because the problem for law enforcement is that “there is already too much data”.

Roxon herself has been unreliable and misleading on the issue. On Friday, she claimed that there are “no proposals to enforce people to give up passwords”, yet the parliamentary discussion paper specifically raises the topic of whether the government should “establish an offence for failure to assist in the decryption of communications”.

If Australia Post were asked to intercept and photocopy all letters, storing them for two years, there would be both a furore and snorts of derision at the absurdity of the idea. It should be no different for internet activity, especially when it comes with provisions making it illegal to keep passwords secret. Viewed alongside the NSW Government’s moves to ‘water down’ the right to remain silent, there appears to be an imminent threat to privacy and civil liberties.

Even forgetting these concerns, the onus for this data collection would be on internet service providers themselves. Storing two years of activity for every customer would not be a trivial exercise, and a submission by the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) to the parliamentary committee on the matter stated that it would cost between $500 and $700 million dollars for the industry to log this information. Unsurprisingly, all submissions from the telco industry to the committee were strongly opposed to the scheme.

For an outrageously unpopular proposal that has been deemed burdensome to implement, a threat to privacy, and potentially useless for its main stated purpose, why has the federal government decided to move in favour of it? One should look across at the other major telecommunications issue the Attorney-General is responsible for: the meetings regarding copyright and intellectual property infringement. Controversially taking place behind closed doors, and the federal government refusing FOI requests for details about the meetings, it would not be a stretch to assume organisations like the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft (AFACT) are in favour of a data retention scheme. AFACT, who lost a protracted court battle against iiNet after trying to make the service provider liable for the copyright infringement of their customers, has long intimated a need for the monitoring of illegal activities online. Considering the SOPA and PIPA controversies in the US earlier this year, AFACT and their Hollywood backers may very well have put their collective weight behind this proposal.

Of course, the federal government is yet to make a final decision, but given Roxon’s sudden change in rhetoric last week, Australians should be very concerned about the threat to their privacy and civil liberties.