In March, Australia passed a new piece of legislation that many privacy advocates are complaining is far too invasive. The new law allows the police to collect and store sensitive information about Australian internet users. The legislation will kick into action in just over a month, on the 13th of October. Disturbingly, the extreme nature of how it says citizens data can be handled is making experts refer to it as the end of an era for Australian privacy.
The new cyber policy demands that Australian firms gather, and keep on record, all user metadata that they process. Metadata is the name given to the detailed information about what Internet users have been doing on the Internet. This info includes sensitive data like your IP address, and who you have been emailing. As well as data usage statistics, and where in particular on the world wide web was accessed during a browsing session.
The data, which from October will be compulsory for Australian firms to collect and store, must be made available for two years. During that time, provisions set forth by the draconian legislation will allow the private information to be passed around to various federal government agencies. Including the police, who will use it to carry out their investigations.
Because of the highly invasive nature of the law, a privacy lawyer from Canada has gone on the record to explain why he feels it marks the beginning of a privacy dystopia for the Aussies. Tamir Israel – an attorney at the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic – explains that there is little evidence that bulk collection serves the public,
‘Data retention in and of itself is an intrusive obligation that has yet to be proven to be effective. [It’s] wholly unnecessary in light of existing preservation powers, starts from the basic presumption that every individual is going to do something wrong one day, and generally undermines online anonymity, leaving customer data vulnerable to malicious hacking and lawsuits.’
In what seems to be a growing trend for privacy – and a now commonplace way of treating citizens everywhere – the Australian law does away with the age-old premise of innocent til proven guilty. Preferring instead a blanket confiscation policy, which sees all internet user data being accessed and stored for the sake of the common good. Eroding, in the process, any vestige of privacy that innocent, law-abiding citizens ought to be able to count on.
Despite similarities to the NSA’s XKEYSCORE initiative, digital privacy experts are warning that the new legislation is more severe and invasive than any other countries’ surveillance procedures. Why? For the first time, this law puts metadata in the hands of all law enforcement (and not just government spy agencies,) allowing metadata to be casually accessed: even during petty crime investigations.
On top of this, privacy experts are worried that the new provisions put too much user information in one location, creating an overly tempting pool of data for international espionage efforts, or privately acting cyber criminals. In a report made by Australian telecom firm iiNet, the drawbacks of having to secure such an enormous and sensitive database are laid bare. With particular mention being made to the extra hardware, and upkeep costs, which will be unavoidable if they are to keep the information safe from prying eyes.
Many citizens, who have nothing to hide, may be baffled as to why this metadata collection is such a draconian invasion. Privacy experts are quick to point out, however, that the new law will allow police to keep tabs on people in an unduly oppressive way. Allowing police to pry into private lives in a manner that they have absolutely no right to. One notable example is that of police getting to see emails to drug rehab clinics – information that people ought to be able to keep to themselves.
Maddeningly, despite bulk collection policies’ unfair intrusion into innocent people’s lives, there is little evidence that such databases help to protect citizens or reduce crime in any significant way. In 2014, the New America Foundation revealed that out of 227 cases involving crimes of a terrorist nature, only 17 involved information garnered from bulk NSA surveillance. As such the New America Foundation concluded that invasive data retention has ‘no discernable impact’ in the prevention of terrorism.
Sadly, however, the Australian government appears to have missed (or ignored) those findings and has chosen to plow on – full steam ahead – with extreme surveillance. An approach that will elevate the nation to number one in the charts of Western countries that wish to reward law-abiding citizens with no privacy whatsoever.