It happens all the time – roughly 800 times a day, on last year’s records.
Somewhere in Australia, a government bureaucrat – no-one especially senior; say, a Centrelink agent – fills in a form, gets a signature from someone else in the department, and becomes authorised to check out a member of the public’s phone records (which numbers that person has called, how long they spoke, and where they were when they placed the call), and then their email history (who they’ve emailed, and when, and the IP addresses used). No warrant required, no notice given.
It’s all legal – and has been happening since 2007.
In fact it happened more than 300,000 times in 2011-12. It may have happened to you – and in most cases, you wouldn’t know.
Australia’s welfare agency, Centrelink, has accessed nearly 8,000 telecommunication records over five years up to June 2012.
Is the law allowing this aimed at preventing terrorist acts? Ensuring public safety? Not necessarily. While most of these records are accessed for purposes of criminal law enforcement, tens of thousands of applications in recent years have been made for a rather more mercenary reason: that is, ‘for the protection of public revenue’.
Centrelink accesses more ‘metadata’ of citizens for this purpose than any other ‘enforcement’ agency, outshining the runner-up, the New South Wales Police Force, which has accessed 7,540 individual records.
“We’re cracking down on welfare recipients by snooping on their private data,” says federal Greens senator and communications spokesman Scott Ludlam. “There’s no due process attached to this at all.”
Ludlam is trying to crack down on the legislative exploitation of such wondrously undefined terms as ‘telecommunications data’ or ‘metadata’ – words that cover everything other than the actual content of the phone call or the email itself, as he told Radio National’s Fran Kelly this week.
“If you like, it’s the envelope, rather than the letter inside the envelope.”
On June 18, Ludlam introduced a private member’s bill in the Senate, calling for warrants to be required before the government can access this data of its citizens.
“It strikes me as an abuse of surveillance powers,” Ludlam tells The Global Mail. “People aren’t being warned that their phone records are effectively being hacked without a warrant.”
Civil Liberties Australia vice president Tim Vines says the public should be worried.
“I don’t think that people assume that Centrelink is a policing organisation,” says Vines. “That these organisations can go and ask your Internet service provider or ask your phone provider to collect and hand over personal information — that’s not something that we would expect as the public.”
Government agencies have had the power to search your metadata without your knowledge and without a judge’s say-so for half a decade, since the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 was amended in 2007.
Then Attorney General, Phillip Ruddock, oversaw the changes when John Howard was Prime Minister, before the election landslide in favour of Kevin Rudd’s Labor government.
Ludlam says: “Before , metadata was regulated under the Telecommunications Act and … you did have to be pursuing a national-security issue.”
In the press about changing the law, attention was paid to the adjustments to the more serious wire-tapping or text-message-reading capabilities of the Act; while the changes allowing bureaucrats access to private metadata were largely ignored.
Each year, agencies report such authorisations to the Attorney General, who includes them in an annual report.
The Global Mail has pulled together the past five years of data showing which organisations have accessed private telecommunications records, from these publicly available annual reports.
Your phone and email records can be obtained by government bodies for three reasons:
• for the enforcement of a criminal law
• for the enforcement of a law imposing a pecuniary penalty
• for the protection of the public revenue
The latter two are grouped together in the statistics, so that’s how we’ve presented them.
Among those organisations authorised to collect details of citizen telecommunications, you’ll find the scandal-ridden Bankstown Council, in Sydney’s southwest, and the Queensland Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
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“The idea that your local council is snooping on your phone records, or potentially has access to where you are at every minute of the day, [in the cause of] pursuing an overdue rates notice, is absolutely over the top,” says Ludlam.
“We assume that properly constituted intelligence and policing agencies should be allowed to surveil Australian citizens or the Australian population if they’re pursuing serious, organised or violent crime. The balance has prevailed in democracies for a hundred years, and I think it’s appropriate.”
A spokesman for Centrelink says the number of metadata searches it carries out represents only a small fraction of the total number of Centrelink clients, and that the agency uses its privileged access as a fraud-detection method.
If the agency accessed your private telecommunications records, however, you would not be told, he says, “until there is a prosecution action”.
“If we plan to rely on metadata as evidence in support of a prosecution, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions would appropriately advise the defendant,” he says.
Civil liberties advocate Vines says, however, “What we’re really concerned about is a dragnet approach where there are really low thresholds by which agencies can acquire this sort of personal information.
“If you want to search the private records of someone that includes their metadata about who they’ve been communicating with, whom they’ve been in contact with, then you should apply for a warrant and you should have at least a reasonable suspicion or else a probable cause.”
“It’s becoming routine, it’s becoming widespread, and it’s moving to a system where everyone’s records are being collected and stored for later access by the police or by another agency, if you think they might have committed an offence.
“And that’s a model of total surveillance that the Australian public hasn’t really signed off on,” Vines said. “They haven’t agreed to that.”
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(Photo: Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images)