Everyone has something to hide if universal data retention becomes law in AustraliaFebruary 6, 2015
Last week, attorney general George Brandis described data retention as “absolutely crucial in identifying terrorist networks and protecting the public”. On that basis, he argued for passage of the government’s data retention legislation.
This assertion is simply false. The government has all the power it needs.
French police and intelligence agencies had access to targeted real-time metadata to track suspected terrorists in the lead up to the Charlie Hebdo attacks. In addition, the terrorists in question were already on EU, UK, and US no-fly lists and had been banned from purchasing firearms.
Similarly, in Australia, Man Haron Monis was already well and truly on Asio’s radar, and Australia’s security agencies have extensive surveillance capacities. They can, for example, obtain data preservation orders that ensure metadata is retained and suspect activities on the internet examined. They can obtain warrants to intercept phone calls.
And yet, data retention didn’t help the police – or the public – one bit.
To his credit, French prime minister Manuel Valls admitted “a clear failing in security and intelligence”. It’s become clear from the fall out – as the Charlie Hebdo attacks are pored over by France’s security experts – that part of the problem is too much data. Finding a needle in a haystack is not made any easier by adding more hay to the stack.
For Brandis’s benefit, I’m going to outline what his proposed mandatory data retention regime will achieve for everyone, not just individuals of interest.
Late last year, I undertook a controlled experiment: with assistance of Mark White of the Sydney Morning Herald, I had a technical firm record my metadata for a month to see what it revealed.
Before entering parliament I ran an agribusiness services company, Baron Strategic Services. Data monitoring equipment was installed in BSS’s office and connected to the router. Because it only collected data relating to office traffic, there was no smartphone-derived geographical information.
The results were revealing. Without knowing any more than the name, metadata showed the sector in which BSS operates in less than a day. It was possible to work out which bank it uses and a complete record of its purchases and those of the staff – everything from furniture to renovations to compulsory third party insurance.
Metadata also revealed how often and for how long staff used social media like Facebook, where they planned to go on holiday, what one wanted to buy for Christmas, and when an employee knocked off early.
As an employer, I’ve never been interested in monitoring employees in this way. I’ve always taken a dim view of people who time their employees’ loo and cigarette breaks. That said, if the boss gets too invasive, an employee at least has a fighting chance of telling that person or company where to get off.
Trying to tell the government – which is far more powerful than any employer, union, or professional association – where to get off is a whole other kettle of fish.
Despite my desire to keep politics and business separate, metadata also revealed my membership of the Inner West Hunters’ Club and the subjects I and other members discussed in group emails, including gun law reform. I wasn’t the only person identifiable either – everyone who corresponded with me had their identities revealed.
It was possible to establish who was publicly in favour of gun law reform, and who was in favour of it privately but unwilling to say anything about the issue in public for, say, employment reasons. The possibilities for blackmail are obvious. That the data will probably be stored offshore – mainly in China where it is cheap – makes the risk of hacking a real concern.
Had the analysis included my smartphone, with its site data, it would have been easy to jump to conclusions based on my location.
What would a telephone call or Google search placed in front of a brothel, gay bar or abortion clinic reveal? Imagine the caller were not me – with my classical liberal views – but a conservative Christian politician. What mischief could be had at his or her expense?
Everyone has something to hide, and something to fear, if universal data retention becomes law. It is one thing to require monitoring of certain individuals, but the idea that the government needs to store my 84-year-old mother’s metadata is ridiculous and should not be countenanced.
Data retention will do nothing to save us from terrorists. It places the entire population under surveillance, no matter who they are or how blameless their lives. And thanks to its sheer volume, it will make terrorism harder, not easier, to stop.