In March 2015, federal parliament passed legislation requiring all internet service providers and telecommunications companies to store the metadata of their customers. Attorney General George Brandis was really into it, but the telcos weren't. So the government gave them an 18-month deadline to implement the necessary structural changes that would allow the storage of customer information. That deadline is today, so it's now open season on your internet and phone privacy.
Or is it? From one angle, metadata isn't necessarily all that personal. In the government's own words, it is "information about a communication, rather than the content or substance of a communication." So it's the phone number you dialled, rather than the conversation you had afterwards. Or the email address you sent your email to, but not the wording of the email itself.
Nonetheless, privacy advocates are extremely worried about the implications of data retention laws. "The government says metadata is anonymous and it won't have an individual impact, but it will," Tim Singleton Norton, Chair of Digital Rights Watch, tells VICE.
"It could have been anonymised and it could have had protections in place, and that's what we lobbied for. Instead, the government has said they will collect 'metadata' instead of 'data' and implied this means they won't look at what private citizens are doing, but instead where they are doing it and who with. But actually, it's easy to figure out more from that information."
Basic metadata can easily triangulate an individual's identity—that's essentially what it's meant to be used for. "You would know for example where I am by knowing which phone towers I connect to, and all of that can easily pinpoint the identity of an individual, let alone the things that they do. From now on, people should be very aware that all their interactions are being recorded in some form," Norton explains.
Digital Rights Watch is urging a national day of action where Australians protect themselves by installing a VPN. "You're now being monitored on your mobile phone, your landline, and online. There's no way around it, apart from a VPN. So the main thing we're asking people to do is get one. The whole system is predicated on an ISP handing over your data, but a VPN means they can't see it," says Norton.
Norton isn't only concerned about the moral implications of a government collecting vast piles of data about its citizens. There are some very real practical concerns, too. "Think of two massive data breaches we just had with the Census and Centrelink," he says. "We don't trust the government to safely store massive amounts of data. We can't trust them to protect the data, let alone use it correctly."
If you're feeling concerned, Digital Rights Watch have put together a handy guide to securing yourself with a VPN. They also urge all concerned citizens to tell their elected MPS what they think about mandatory data retention by calling or emailing their offices.
The data retention scheme will be reviewed by parliament in 2019.
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