Should We Trust The Government On Metadata?

If you've got nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear. That's the catchcry used to defend the government's proposals around metadata. But should we be trusting them with this information in the first place? It's not as though they've done a lot to engender trust in the first place.

We've watched as the government first mooted its metadata policy — and to be fair, although it's impossible to write about government policy without it becoming a political discussion, the previous Labor government also sought similar schemes — and as it has hilariously stumbled over matters as simple as a definition of metadata.

Well, hilariously, except that this is quite serious stuff if you're serious about privacy.

We at least now have a better idea of what the government is considering thanks to the leak of ISP consultation documents yesterday, although that hasn't stopped George Brandis from essentially vacillating on metadata definitions during recent Senate hearings, declaring that "this is a term that does not have a precise definition. It is a description rather than a definition".

So he's moved from tripping over his own feet on metadata to fudging around what the government would actually like to collect. This does not fill me with large quantities of confidence when it comes to metadata collection policies, or indeed enforcement of those policies.

But maybe that's beside the point. Should we trust the government with our metadata? Let's examine the common arguments for metadata retention

You already give this stuff away anyway

Google knows a lot about me. So does Facebook, so does Twitter, and so do countless other companies that I've done business with. So the argument goes: all this data is already out there for companies to use for marketing purposes, so what point is there in arguing against metadata retention if I'm happy to just give this data away?

Sorry, but I don't buy that. Or more to the point, I do buy something — be it a service or a product or a social network or whatever — in return for that data. Yes, people rather blindly and freely put up all sorts of details online that they probably should think about in more detail than they do, but they do so as a choice.

The difference between that and having your metadata mass-scraped is quite profound.

If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear

While it was a flippant question, there's some purpose in Greens Senator Scott Ludlam asking George Brandis if he'd be willing to publish his metadata online based on this principle, which is beloved by those who tend to favour surveillance/security over privacy.

I have two problems with this. Firstly, there's the implicit idea within it that privacy is something we really shouldn't be fussed with, because only those with actual criminal/terrorist issues would have anything to hide.

That's rubbish. In an increasingly digital world, I reckon we've all got more need for privacy, not less. There's all sorts of private information about me that are, quite frankly, none of your business, and none of the government's either. Not all of it relates to what could be seen as "criminal" activity — bear in mind here too that there are all sorts of odd criminal statutes that many of us break on a daily basis — but plenty of it could be embarrassing if leaked.

Equally, though, the scope for what happens to this data is quite wide as it stands. Metadata collection as the government seeks to define it does cover an awful lot of surveillance of pretty much the entire population of the country. Once it's collected, it's essentially just an act of parliament away from being used for any purpose, whether we like it or not.

There will be punishments for those who leak data inappropriately

Ah, but the argument goes, those who leak inappropriately will be punished accordingly.

I'd certainly hope so, but the reality there is that once a leak has happened, the damage is already done. You can't put the metadata genie back into the bottle.

Want some proof? Just today, The Guardian is reporting that the AFP mistakenly leaked metadata via a Senate enquiry relating to actual criminal matters in a manner that could have compromised actual investigations.

Yeah, that fills me with confidence about what would happen to metadata relating to all of us. Sure it does.

But TERRORISM!

This is the catchcry of the government, because apparently not being able to access metadata will make fighting terrorism all but impossible. It's a great catchcry, because who would want to be associated with being pro-terrorism?

The issue here is that while it's emotive, it's also substantially unknowable. On the pro side, you could argue that Australia hasn't been particularly plagued with terrorist attacks, and maybe that's down to sensible intelligence work in decades past. In an increasingly digital world, it could be argued that the need for metadata might protect us from future attacks.

On the minus side, you could argue that we've not been a major target, or that intelligence agencies haven't needed metadata previously to keep us safe.

As I say, though, it's an unknowable for security reasons, but what's clear is that the intent is to move well beyond counter-terrorism operations. There's repeated mention in the leaked document of "public safety" and "criminal activity" without exact specifications of what's sought there. Given the scope of some of the data being sought, and the fact that there are situations in my opinion where civil disobedience in the face of "the law" can be justified, simply filing government metadata surveillance as "anti-terrorism" is extremely blinkered and limiting.

It wouldn't be a stretch to say that I have serious trust issues with the current administration, largely because outside (regrettably, in my opinion) mandates on stopping boats and removing the carbon tax, a lot of the elected platform that they went to the polls with has been cast aside. I can't recall Tony Abbott standing on a platform talking up how he planned to watch the online activities of all Australians, after all. Equally, the reliance on dodging questions or citing "operational matters" doesn't exactly fill me with trust when it comes to current government issues.

Metadata retention has been on the table for a lot longer than the current government has been in power, however, and I think it's wise to at least stop and consider what we'd be giving away, not in return for a product or service as in the online shopping sense, in return for "safety" that might not be there at all.

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