The department of broadband, communications and the digital economy pushed against a proposal from government spy agencies like ASIO to force telecommunications companies to store personal information on its customers for two or more years, internal documents reveal.
The documents, released under Freedom of Information by the department last week, reveal a split between government agencies around the contentious plan, which is currently being considered by a parliamentary committee.
If the proposal is passed into law, companies like Telstra and Optus would be required to store basic information, such as the type, time, duration, and identifiers of parties to internet use and phone calls, for two years or more.
Federal, state and local government agencies used the current system to access existing telecommunications information a total 304,437 times over the previous financial year.
Agencies including ASIO and the Australia Federal Police argue the regime is necessary for criminal investigations, giving them access to the basic information required to locate a suspect and accomplices. They say the crucial information is currently discarded by some companies and only kept for short periods by others.
AFP commissioner Tony Negus told a parliamentary committee last year that police agencies would prefer a regime that required data to be stored for five years, or even no time limit.
However, the FoI documents reveal the DBCDE supported locking in the regime at six months – rather than two years or more – and that communications companies should not be required to keep any more information than they already did for business purposes.
The comments were made to the Attorney-General’s Department in response to an independent regulatory impact statement on the proposal, which similarly said the regime should only last six months without further proof of longer requirements.
The department said in the comments that the regime should “only apply to non-content data that service providers would otherwise collect for their particular business model – in other words there should be no requirement to collect/generate data if it is not required for business needs”.
Long running saga
The topic has been an issue of heated debate for several years after confidential discussions between internet service providers and the Attorney-General’s Department were unearthed in 2010.
The issue has since been forwarded to a parliamentary committee as part of a raft of national security reforms, but politicians and industry alike have attacked the lack of information given to the committee surrounding the regime.
Both departments have in the past refused to comment publicly on their position while it is before the parliamentary committee.
Telecommunications companies claim the proposal would be costly to establish and maintain with the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association putting a minimum cost of between $500 million to $700 million.
Internal proposal documents released by the Attorney-General’s Department under Freedom of Information last month showed work was being conducted as far back as 2009 on draft legislation for the regime, in what was described at the time as the “elephant in the room”.
Greens communications spokesman Scott Ludlam said the comments from the DBCDE were a “climb-down” from the more radical aspects of the proposal.
“To me, it feels though a little bit like history repeating itself – we went through this all in 2009 when data retention first reared its head,” he told The Australian Financial Review. “It’ll go underground for a while and they’ll bring it back under a new Attorney-General.
“I suspect it’s not the last we’ll see of it but I was interested to see some of the scope looked like it had been wound back from what they were contemplating earlier.”
The parliamentary committee was due to report on the reforms earlier this year, but has since extended the deadline, a move Senator Ludlam would likely push data retention legislation beyond the September federal election.
“I think it’s unlikely that the government will bring a proposal forward that is dramatically unpopular, particularly with big cohorts of people that they will need the support of in the federal election – young people, technically literate people who spend a lot of their time online,” he said.
“I still hope the joint committee tables a report because that will at least allow us to see where they landed and also maybe draw out a comment from the Attorney-General as to what he thinks. I hope that will then put the whole matter to rest.”
A spokesman for Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, QC, said all options remained on the table regarding the data retention proposals, pending the joint committee’s findings.
“No decisions have been made regarding the matters referred to the Committee and the Government looks forward to receiving the Committee’s report shortly,” the spokesman said.
The DBCDE has also been approached for comment.
Author: James Hutchinson