What the heck is Australis doing ????
As much as anything, Australians should fear the government's metadata retention proposals because it's becoming increasingly clear that our politicians have no idea what they're proposing.
Within a single day of the prime minister, Tony Abbott, taking to the microphone with attorney-general George Brandis and foreign minister Julie Bishop to announce the plan as a raft of counter-terrorism measures, the PM has:
- Broadened the justification for metadata retention from preventing terrorism to crime-fighting “in general”;
- Stated that the new laws are needed because carriers already store the data the government wants;
- Asserted that metadata retention will involve no cost to carriers because they already collect the data the government wants; and
- Broadened the scope of the data collection to Web browsing history, while simultaneously trotting out the national security establishment's falsehood that metadata collection is no more than “reading what's on the envelope”.
In a single day, the prime minister has put himself at odds with statements made by the national security establishment – most usually from the director-general of ASIO, David Irvine – to parliamentary committees examining data retention, security laws, and telecommunications interception laws.
On the need for new laws, Irvine is on the record as saying new data needs to be retained, because the Internet is different from the telephone network, where call data records are required for billing purposes.
ISPs currently don't keep per-communication metadata records for Web access, for Skype calls, for Tor connections, for e-mails and all the rest. Australia's national security and law enforcement agencies all want that data collected.
The PM, however, believes it already is collected, telling the ABC's Michael Brissenden that “the metadata we're talking about is information that is already kept”.
“All we want is for the telecommunications companies to continue to keep the person sending the information, the person to whom the information is being sent, the time it was sent, and the place it was sent from,” he said to Brissenden on the national radio programme AM.
The “envelope” metaphor is pervasive. The Register notes that it was used by Irvine as recently as July, and was used yesterday by Alistair MacGibbon of the Centre for Internet Safety (a kind of spook think-tank at the ANU) on Sydney's ABC 702 Drive show in conversation with presenter Richard Glover yesterday (August 5).
The “envelope” metaphor is a dangerous falsehood – and it's one that tripped up the PM in conversation with Channel Nine television, when he decided to expand on it.
“It's not the content of the letter, it's what's on the envelope … it's not what you're doing on the Internet, it's the sites you're visiting. It's not the content, it's just where you've been, so to speak.”
Once again, the prime minister seems to have contradicted Irvine, who in July saidWeb browser history is out-of-scope for metadata retention, saying “The principle is that web surfing … or, indeed, Googling 'Al-Qaeda atrocities' … is not picked up by us, not regarded by us as metadata”.
Then there's the question of why: yesterday's focus on terrorism has been expanded by the prime minister to include general crime-fighting. Quoting again from his interview with Michael Brissenden: “all of the expert advice from our counter-terrorist agencies is that this is absolutely critical, not just in the fight against terrorism, but in crime-fighting more generally.”
The Register would argue that political confusion about the entire debate – what is metadata, what will be kept, and what the agencies want – is dangerous. It greatly increases the likelihood that the government will be given a legislative agenda by the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) and the Australian Federal Police (AFP), and will enact that legislation without grasping its import until later.