Your Metadata: It'll Cost About $400m, But Now It's Political

Data retention legislation continues to percolate, although the government is trying to push it through parliament as soon as possible -- and could potentially have a capturing and monitoring system in place before March. Despite both Liberal and Labor parties generally being in favour of it, there's a bit of trouble brewing in our Orwellian paradise.

Smartphone image via Shutterstock

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has done the maths and says that the absolute maximum cost of a data retention program would top out at $400 million -- that's 1 per cent of the value of Australia's $40 billion telecommunications industry. Given that second-largest telco Optus pegs the cost at $200m, that Abbott quote seems sketchy.

The cost of not ramming through the legislation, though, would be incalculably higher according to Abbott -- due to an "explosion in unsolved crime" from law enforcement agencies not having access to the crucial metadata apparently invaluable in identifying, tracking down and prosecuting criminals who use the Australian internet and telecommunications networks to communicate and conduct their illegal activities. Abbott says the retention of metadata would go a long way in the fight against terrorists, pedophiles and corporate fraudsters.

Here's the problem -- this rhetoric doesn't really sound like something that you could quantify -- you can't put a number on crimes that you don't know about. Moreover, Abbott's comment ignores the fact that Australian law enforcement agencies like the AFP and ASIO already successfully catch and prosecute individuals without the expanded, on-demand access to metadata that they have requested. Existing legislation allows agencies to access currently-retained metadata, as long as warrant conditions were met.

Last Week In Your Metadata: Government Wants It, Telcos Don't Mind

Shadow communications minister Jason Clare talked to Sky News to offer a carefully dissenting opinion:

Clare, who is a member of the parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security, said that while metadata is "very important" for the day-to-day operations of Australia's law enforcement -- using the example of police checking the phone and internet records of a person being killed, despite no witnesses at the scene of the crime, to establish any persons of interest.

Despite that value, Clare echoed Labor Party leader and Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten in saying that the strict definition of what consitutes metadata should be encapsulated in legislation and laid out clearly rather than being left up to agency self-regulation. "All the telcos" are already in favour of strict definition, as are industry groups.

Similarly, the Labor Party wants the clear costs of data retention to be made public. The issue is largely a bipartisan one but Shorten has recently said that the government's politicisation of the matter threatens the party's unqualified support, and Clare told Sky News "this is too important for politics". The lack of provisions to protect the work and confidential sources of journalists is also a sticking point.



    Prime Minister Tony Abbott has done the maths

    Well, there's our first problem...

    $400 mil? Is this figure just the initial implementation? What about ongoing costs?

      "Is this figure just the initial implementation?"


      "What about ongoing costs?"

      Notably absent. "New surveillance tax" doesn't sound good for the "no new tax" government.
      Ongoing costs would be quite high, given the ever-increasing number of internet-enabled devices, NBN, etc.

      Last edited 18/02/15 3:50 pm

    Existing legislation allows agencies to access currently-retained metadata, as long as warrant conditions were met.
    This is frequently overlooked. ISPs already store metadata, and police already have access to it (with a warrant). They're just asking for easier access, so they can go fishing more easily, and a larger pool to fish in.

    The other elephant that is deliberately being overlooked by Abbott & the police is that any sort of organised criminal already knows how to avoid metadata traces, and has for many years - in fact, a large fraction of the public does too: with a basic VPN.

    So long as the "terrorists, pedophiles and corporate fraudsters" are smart enough to be able to get Netflix, they're smart enough to hide their illicit activity metadata from anything these laws would affect.

    Am I missing something here, but seems to me the gov is building a giant 'who's been watching porn' file. As such, how are the nations Dads not having a collective heart-attack?

    Seems to me any opposition would sail to a landslide victory in one easy interview.
    "The Libs are tracking every website you visit. And I mean EVERY website, even your teenage son. ".

    So the take away here is - if you don't already have a VPN, you have about three to four weeks to sort yourself out.....

    What BS, I work in telco industry. Look up how a cell tower works. It logs your location, speed and direction, so it can hand your call or data to the next tower. It's called meta data, telcos use this for the time it takes to hand over the call to the next tower and dumps it. This law will make telcos hold that for 2Yrs. Ps you don't need to be making a call for the tower to record this info?! It use that so as to connect a call. Towers need to know where you are to connect incoming calls! That's called meta data as well?.
    Now remember the first person charged under the anti-bikie laws in QLD was a 15-17 yr old handicapped boy.

      Problem is metadata they want isn't just cell tower info. They want internet site data, your ip address and the connections you follow to go to any sites the want to keep an eye on. And they want to justify it with the war on terror... wait no also possible sexual predators... wait no also...

        No. They wan't the IP address you connect to. No website URLs are taken, just the IP addresses.

    If a person steals your private information its a crime, if the government takes your private information its for your security.

    "You do realise that exposing the illegal things your government has been doing is illegal?"

    It’s true that you can’t put a figure on crimes you don’t know about.

    However, you can put a figure on criminal investigations which have ceased due to Telcos/ISPs being unable to provide police with metadata. Maybe the government should release those figures. And at the same time release exactly what data was needed to continue the investigations.

    At any rate, this debate is going to be in a holding pattern until the government actually reveals what they want kept, by whom, on whom and for how long.

    Last edited 19/02/15 9:48 am


      The article never mentions people talking about crimes you don't know about. It specifically mentions unsolved crimes.

      Once again a Gizmodo "journalist" inserting words and skewing an article to fit their own view.

      Not once in the article does in mention unknown crimes, but the writer implies that this is what is being said.

      This is a lie.

      It is very easy to put a figure on unsolved crimes which remain unsolved due to law enforcement not having access to data that could provide clues to solve them.

    To paraphrase Douglas Adams - The Abbott government will be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.

    $400m would also get you around 3000 extra police or intelligence officers or community support officers or psychologist. All of which will aid in the same way without infringing on peoples privacy.

    This has nothing to do with catching criminals and everything to do with the US-driven 'spy on everyone' push to monitor and control populations. Not to mention all of the by-products of anti-piracy, industrial espionage, oppression by fear, data mining, etc.

    As any respectable dictator or totalitarian regime knows how important it is to know everything about their citizens and have a fool-proof way of keeping them in line - fear.

    Archibald Buttle will be able to sleep secure, at night. This system is well overdue.

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