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Metadata not about 'big brother' watching you

Shahida Sweeney | Feb. 26, 2015
Metadata analysis is critical for criminal investigations and does not impact citizens who have nothing to hide, says AFP assistant commissioner, Tim Morris.

No Statsi state, says AFP's Tim Morris
No Statsi state, says AFP's Tim Morris

Australian Federal Police (AFP) assistant commissioner, Tim Morris, has moved to allay fears the government's metadata reforms will involve around-the-clock surveillance of citizens.

Commissioner Morris told delegates at an Annual Tech Leaders Forum in the Blue Mountains that the the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014, is designed to tackle serious crime, rather than use up resources on day-to-day surveillance of citizens.

He said the collection, use and analysis of metadata remains critical for criminal investigations, especially in a cyber-world. This does not impact citizens who have nothing to hide.

"Data retention elicits a strong reaction from wider communities," Morris said. "But this data, sitting on carriers' networks, is not about mass surveillance."

No Stasi state
Organised crime has reached a tipping point, Morris warned. The use of metadata is to target organised crime, manage terror investigations, or seek better ways to protect children from global paedophile networks.

"The (metadata) bill obliges telcos to retain data for limited periods. This is not about mass surveillance, and big brother is not watching you," Morris said.

A new regime does not involve "people just sitting there and trawling through personal information." Moreover, agencies can only access data, under limited and tightly-controlled circumstances, he said.

This data collection does not catapult Australia into a "Stasi state," with secret police tracking the day-to-day movements of citizens, Morris said.

There are an estimated 42 million telecommunications connections in Australia. The metadata access will account for a miniscule of the communication traffic flowing through networks across Australia.

"This is not a Stasi state in Australia. We're only asking to keep limited information, and agencies will require a warrant to access this data," Morris said.

Watching the watchman
Morris foreshadowed "robust accountability, including ministerial oversight, and extended powers involving the Commonwealth Ombudsman. The ombudsman will have expanded powers to investigate, monitor and authorise access, and follow through on complaints.

Historical metadata remains crucial to fighting crime, Morris said. This information helps determine the size and scope of terror cells, can identify covert phone-calls, or confirm communication between cell members.

Without this access, "we're relying on chance," Morris said. "We understand personal privacy, but cannot support the right to carry out unlawful activity.

"Data retention offers us access to better tracking tools, in light of the new technology. There's a two-year mandatory retention period to hold this data."

The total cost to roll out Australia's metadata retention program is estimated at $400 million. Telcos are required to cover bulk of the cost of this retention, including investing in storage capacity, or access to data centres.


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