It’s no secret that Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull hates the Government’s plan for data retention. He hated it when it was Labor’s plan in 2012, and he hates it now. I imagine he especially hates how it was explained by the architect of the solution, Attorney General George Brandis. Behind the scenes though, the fight for the privacy of Australia’s internet users rages. According to a new interview with Liberal Democrats Senator, David Leyonhjelm, a Minister matching Turnbull’s description stormed into a meeting and showed them exactly why data retention was a stupid idea.
Leyonhjelm, a noted Libertarian, spoke to Reason Magazine in the US about a variety of topics, including data retention, relaying the story about how maybe Turnbull taught Australian law enforcement agencies about what VPNs were:
Reason: What is the public response, compared to America, where this been quite a bit of outrage over whether the NSA or the FBI or the CIA can use the Internet to snoop on its citizens? Are you getting a similar response in Australia?
Leyonhjelm: It’s hard to tell what the public generally is thinking yet. I don’t think they’ve quite woken up to it.
The media is skeptical. There are some commentators who are saying, “Well, it’s pretty obvious these people from Australia who are going over there to Iraq are dangerous; therefore, we should give the agencies any power they want.” That school of thought can be found. But they’re just one voice. The more common voice is, “This is risky.” They want the agencies to justify why they need extended powers, why they aren’t capable of dealing with this threat with their current powers. And we don’t like be snooped on. So my feeling is that the government is going to back away from it.
The bigger debate—there are a couple of worrying elements. One is legislation that’s been introduced to parliament to make it an offense to report on anything that our ASIO is up to. That’s our domestic spying agency. It’s kind of a legal cover for them to do anything they like and be as incompetent as they like and it can’t be publicly reported. There’s quite a bit of pushback starting to gather on that one.
The other one that’s causing a fair bit of grief is a metadata retention plan, the equivalent of what your NSA does. We don’t have metadata retention at the moment and the agencies have been saying, “Oh, well we should have it. You can’t use it if you haven’t got it,” sort of thing. But I spoke to one of the ministers last week about this because he does know what “metadata” means—he knows quite a lot about the Internet and how it works—He said to me people who are asking for this data, people who are thinking this is a good idea, actually have no idea what they’re asking for. They don’t know what they’re going to do with it. They don’t know what the implications of requiring it are. They haven’t really thought this through.
He gave them a demonstration on a VPN [virtual private network] and said, “By my IP address, tell me what you can find out about me now.” And they had no idea there was such a thing as a VPN. It indicates to me that these people are not well-informed enough to make these kinds of decisions. As it stands, it may be that the government may only require the Internet companies to store the IP address of the originating Internet use, so they’ll know what computer you’re from and what IP you’re working from, which is not a lot different from keeping a record of the phone you’re calling from. So if that’s the case, it’s probably not going to pose too much alarm. He’s a minister and he knows what he’s talking about. But he’s surrounded by people who don’t know what they’re talking about who think that they need something more. We don’t know yet where this will end up. It does have the potential to be very dangerous.
Obviously, Leyonhjelm doesn’t explicitly name names, but I think we all have sharp enough mental pencils in which to shade inside the lines he’s drawn for us.
Good to know that (most of) our lawmakers really don’t know a thing about how the internet works.
Image: Malcolm Turnbull