Ever since the Prime Minister confirmed that we’re getting a data retention scheme, confusion has been rife over what metadata the government is coming for. From the looks of things, it has no earthly idea. Attorney General George Brandis took to Sky News last night, and made a right mess of it.
First question, right off the bat from Sky News’ David Speers was “what exactly is metadata?”.
Brandis begins: “Metadata is…the best metaphor I can use for metadata is…”
Let me stop you right there, Mr Attorney-General. 28 seconds in and already we have an issue.
Metaphors are what got us to this place of confusion and fear over the government’s use of metadata. If we don’t know what you’re coming for — what you’re going to use it for — how we can be assured our privacy is going to be protected?
For those wondering, the metaphor Brandis regurgitated is the one about how metadata is collecting the information that’s on the front of the envelope, not the contents of the letter. But because we live in 2014 (fancy that!), David Speers sensibly asked the follow-up: “what if I’m online, though?”
The phone number from and to, the identity of the owners of those numbers, the location from which the call is made and the time. “It’s what’s retained by the telcos for bill purposes,” Brandis assured.
It’s easy for the Attorney General to talk about metadata as it relates to phone calls; the AG was likely there when the first phone call was made so he’s had some time to study the system. The real problem comes when the Attorney General — and anyone in the government for that matter — tries to explain something that happens on the magical series of tubes we call the internet.
Challenge: try and get through this next part without headdesking.
“[Metadata collection] wouldn’t extend to, for example, web surfing,” Brandis confidently assures. “What people are viewing on the internet is not going to be caught.”
“So it’s not the sites your visiting [that will be tracked]?” Speers asks.
“Well, um, what people are viewing on the internet when they web surf will not be caught. What will be caught is the, um, is the um…the web address they communicate to…the electronic address of the website.”
“What you’re viewing on the internet is not what we’re interested in…but what the security agencies want to know and be retained is the electronic address of the website that the web user [goes to].”
“When you go to a website, you browse from one site to the next. That browsing history won’t be retained. There won’t be any capacity to access that.”
Speers correctly points out that “if you are retaining the ‘web address’ you are retaining the name of the ‘web site'”. That’s correct: a simple search of any WHOIS database matches IP addresses to plain-text web addresses and vice-versa. Cue more Brandis stammering.
“Well…every website has an electronic address, right? And when a connection is made between one computer terminal and a web address, that fact and the time of the connection and the duration of the connection is what we mean by metadata in that context. It…it…it, it it…it records the electronic web address that has been accessed.”
Another point to Speers as he points out that THOSE ARE THE SAME FUCKING THINGS (edited for context). Does your forehead hurt from smacking it on your desk yet? Mine does.
Eventually we move on from one derptastic voyage to another: what about stuff on social media? How will that be retained?
We’ve already seen a technical demo on how metadata is scooped up from iiNet during a Senate Hearing into the matter…
…so how does AG Brandis think it can be done?
“The extent to which social media is being absorbed into this is still something that’s under discussion,” he said.
“I think we’re going down the wrong path here. Because what the agencies are mostly interested in right now is mobile phone traffic,” Brandis adds with authority. Ok, now we’re getting somewhere: agencies are prioritising the metadata they want already.
Brandis crosses the border back into crazytown when the interview swings towards FaceTime, Skype and GChat conversations. Surely the government doesn’t want to listen in on those, right?
“If terrorists are talking on Skype, that may not be caught,” Speers warns hypothetically. Brandis confidently responds: “We want it to be caught but in terms of data retention…not all Skype conversations are going to respond to the description of metadata.”
Well, George, a few minutes ago you said metadata was a fucking envelope, then it was “electronic addresses” but not “web addresses” and links. Now we’re listening into Skype conversations and ruling in things that you can eavesdrop on. Would you like to take a minute to collect yourself? No? Ok, moving on.
“Our primary focus is terrorism but the fact is that access to metadata is a very useful investigative tool.” Translation: terrorism-shmerrorism, we’re here to be the #TeamAustralia Internet Police.
Brandis makes a sensible and indeed sobering point that with a warrant, law enforcement agencies were able to track down the man at the centre of the Jill Meagher murder, and the UK is using metadata to stop child sex offences. Great work! The problem is that law enforcement agencies going forward likely won’t need a warrant to access your metadata. The Jill Meagher example was likely filed under the Telecommunications Interception Act, which is what we’re changing in order to store all your metadata (whatever that may be).
Finally, Speers rightly asks whether the government will be pinging people who “download illegal content”. Read: everything from illegal movies and TV shows through to child exploitation material.
“We’re not interested in that,” Brandis says before repeating it. So that’s something.
Eventually, we got a few substantive answers out of the Attorney General when it comes to metadata. We know that the spooks want to track our phones first and our internet second; we know that metadata can be useful but it’s likely to be abused by internet cops and finally, that George Brandis, nor anyone in the Cabinet (including Prime Minister Tony “I’m No Bill Gates” Abbott”) knows how the internet works.
We have an grandfather clock government in a world where everyone just checks the time on their phones, and that’s a terrifying prospect for the future of progress and internet freedom.
At least we have a dubstep remix of Brandis’ interview to distract us from said derp.
Cover Image: Getty