Australia’s ever-controversial data retention law came into effect in April of last year.
Under the law, individuals’ metadata must be kept for at least two years by telecommunication companies.
This meant that metadata from internet activity, emails, texts, phone calls and location would be tracked by the Australian government.
Over a year later, the law has been subject to “abuse” by many state-agencies who are showering the telecom companies with requests for the metadata.
Attorney General Mark Dreyfus raised his concerns that access to the metadata was originally restricted to a specific number.
Specifically, access to the metadata was only granted to around 22 government agencies, mostly police and intelligence agencies.
Since the law did not grant access to the contents of the communication, agencies do not require warrants to access the metadata.
In turn, they have been bombarding telecom companies with around 1,000 requests a day.
The Law Criticized During a Parliamentary Hearing
In a hearing involving the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, members of the committee and Australia’s security agencies were discussing newly proposed laws that would allow agencies access the content of communications, including encrypted data as well as password-protected devices.
During this hearing, the existing data retention law came under heavy criticism.
Critics have been pointing out that even though contents of the communication are not retrieved, the metadata gives a detailed picture of a person, thus invading their privacy.
Despite this, a federal court ruled that metadata does not constitute personal information.
Another issue that was raised even before the law came in effect was its cost.
The program has been deemed too expensive, and it is expected to cost Australian taxpayers around $740 million Australian dollars over the next 10 years.
With the latest proposed law, the Assistance and Access Bill 2018, similar concerns have been raised.
If passed, the bill would compel telecom companies to create a systemic weakness—a backdoor of some sort that would give government agencies access to individuals’ devices and data.
The Australian federal government has denied the allegations, claiming that the laws prohibit companies from building weaknesses in systems to benefit security and intelligence agencies.
But during the hearing, Michael Pezzullo, secretary of the Home Affairs Department, stated that government authorities and telecom companies are working to define what a systemic weakness is.
At the same time, Duncan Lewis, head of security at the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), reassured the committee that their end goal is to investigate and stop domestic terrorism.
He cited that they are only interested in small quantities of the data.
How to Maintain Some Privacy
Similar laws exist in other countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States.
Although retention law in the U.K. was deemed unlawful by the High Court, the country went ahead with its implementation.
Similarly, in the U.S., the National Security Agency (NSA) also continues to collect phone metadata from citizens even after Congress limited its ability to do so back in 2015.
In the end, there are measures and tools one can take to protect their identity and metadata.
The first thing is to always use virtual private networks, more commonly known as VPNs.
This will hide your browsing data from both the government and your internet service provider.
Second is using tools that will keep you anonymous and hide your identity and activity from spy agencies.
Such a tool is the Tor browser, which you can use on both the surface web and the hidden web.
The third measure is using encrypted messaging apps like Telegram, which would make it hard for spy agencies track you or get your message contents.
Another thing to note is that the data retention law only covers Australia-based companies. Any offshore company is not compelled to store data—at least not for the Australian government.
Thus using a product from a foreign company, one may not be affected by the law.
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