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Metadata retention laws: eroding democracy, increasing risk, and otherwise pointless

March 25, 2015 - 18:38 -- Admin

“The social and economic costs of the metadata retention law are massive yet the public benefits miniscule” writes business analyst Carl Sudholz. Carl shares his concerns with The AIMN about this controversial law.

The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014 increases our nation’s risk to terrorism and cyber-crime while fundamentally eroding our democratic rights and freedoms. By way of their support for this legislation, my local National’s member for Mallee, Mr Andrew Broad, the Abbott Government, and the Labor Opposition are considerably increasing the risk to all Australians of government abuse, corporate crime, cyber-crime and terrorism. This is not an act of responsible Government. These laws are dangerous!

Personally, I expect little from members of the National Party and the Abbott Government who collectively and continually prove themselves inept when it comes to matters of science, technology and the information economy. It is in Labor who I am most disappointed as they are now complicit in this gross act of anti-democracy. Of all the issues on which to take a bi-partisan stance, this is certainly the most obscene. I am proud to be a member of The Greens who through the voice of Senator Scott Ludlum in particular, remains the only party who outright and rightfully oppose the irrationality and inevitable consequences of these laws.

Let me explain by example of possibility why these metadata retention laws are fundamentally dangerous to our national public interest.

Firstly, if you are a genuine criminal, these laws are very easy to get around. The keywords ‘TOR’, ‘VPN’ and ‘Darknet’ are all you need to begin learning about how to hide your internet movements and thereby remain invisible to the government agencies seeking to find you through these laws. Either that, or just turn off your phone. It really is not hard to protect your metadata if you want to. The people the Abbott Government seeks to catch, nasty as they may be, are not so stupid to fall into such obvious traps. Once bitten, a hundred times shy will be the response of those these laws seek to apprehend. Hence, from this point forward, these laws will be pointless when it comes to catching genuine criminals and terrorists.

The bill states among other things, that the date, time and location of all communication on a service provider’s network must be kept for two years. For most people with a smart-phone this law will make their device a permanent GPS tracking device. These laws will create collections of ‘big data’ that contain the movements and habits of an entire nation of innocent Australian citizens. Regular people ‘with nothing to hide’ will not go offline, yet their data will be collected and stored by Australian phone and internet service providers. These datasets will contain the details of workplaces, homes, and habits of all Australian citizens, every hour, every day. Using widely available big data technology this data is incredibly valuable for a wide range of purposes, good, bad and ugly.

Any person with modest self-taught skill could use such a dataset to identify the homes of any person of interest: celebrities, policeman, military officers, criminals, journalists or politicians. Simply locate a building of interest and watch people as come and go in their daily routine. You could, for example, watch the Channel 7 studio in Sydney’s Martin Place and identify everyone who works there and arrives around 4am or 5am. Now, cross reference those records with the comings and goings from the Port Adelaide Football Club in Adelaide. Hey presto, you just discovered David Koch. Where he lives, when and how he gets around. All without him knowing about it. What would you do next? I wonder what a public figure like Kochie thinks about that?

It is not difficult to consider other ways that this valuable dataset could be used to cause harm. Using the very same dataset as above, one could identify the time and place where Sydney-siders gather with the greatest density and consistency – the ideal place to stage a terrorist attack. Imagine what the Martin Place siege might have been if Man Haron Monis had beforehand, such insights into the hustle and bustle of Sydney town?

When voting for such laws, I wonder if Mr Broad has considered what they may mean for his own political future? It is not unreasonable to consider he himself would become a ‘person of interest’ as leader of the National Party and Deputy Prime Minister, as no doubt he aspires. What if someone wished to track him and his family? What would their motivations be? These examples are, at this moment, only harmless thoughts. However, if the metadata retention bill passes the Senate and becomes law, they will become potential reality. From then, it is just one mistake, one successful hack, one politically motivated Government Minister or one corrupt system operator away from becoming somebody’s harsh reality.

Make no mistake, these laws will create a database of our national habits and movements. The purpose we are told, is so that the Federal Police can capture and prosecute ‘persons of interest’. However, who is such a person depends on who is using the data and there is no guarantee over who that is going to be. Why? Because of the immense value of such a dataset and to who: terrorists, rogue nations and other nasty people for certain, but also to commercial interests and those maintain the data such as Newscorp or Telstra. This is not to mention the value to political interests and national and allied governments. The fact that they have passed this legislation in the lower house demonstrates how our legislators have no concept over the intrinsic value of such data in the information age.

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Image from computerworld.com.au

Be assured, there are many who would pay millions of dollars for access including governments, advertisers, media and public relations. There will be others willing to pay equally as much to hack their way in. Furthermore, as defined within the legislation, this data is to be managed by the corporate sector. With such a high value resource at their fingertips, neither corporate or government interests can be trusted to maintain and protect this information. Such inherent value within a resource guarantees its abuse. This is inevitable. If the metadata collections do not get hacked, the Government will abuse them, if not that, the commercial interests will misuse them and if none of those, the data will be sold off to the highest bidder. This is a simple matter of supply and demand as applied to the information economy.

The social and economic costs of the metadata retention law are massive yet the public benefits miniscule. The metadata retention bill passed last week will create such datasets that because of their plain existence and massive inherent financial value, will inevitably be hacked, stolen or misused. The question that really concerns me is: when this happens what will those people do with it?

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