Since the latest amendments to Australian metadata laws were put into effect last October, various government agencies have requested the Australian Federal Police (AFP) provide access to private information. ABC news has reported that the AFP declined every request for metadata, evidenced by emails from the AFP obtained by the ABC under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth).

Background

Last year the Australian Government passed the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act 2015 (Cth) with the purpose of forcing telecommunication providers to maintain records of their customer’s phone and internet usage for a period of two years for security investigation purposes. Data that will be retained and shared includes phone numbers, length of calls, email addresses and timestamps of messages, but does not include the content of the conversations and excludes internet browsing data.

The Act also limits the type of government agencies that have access to this metadata, with section 180 of the Telecommunications (Interception And Access) Act 1979 (Cth) limiting the scope only to ‘criminal law-enforcement’ agencies, such as the AFP. The effect of this has drastically hindered investigations conducted by many other government agencies, who are turning to the AFP to conduct searches on their behalf.

Released earlier this year was a list of 61 agencies that have applied to access stored metadata, including but not limited to the Departments of Defence, Agriculture, Health, Social Services and the Environment as well as NSW Fair Trading, Roads and Maritime NSW and the Australian Taxation Office.

Why do they want access to our data?

Since the amendment has been enacted, the effect of this law has severely hampered the investigations of several government departments. The Department of Foreign Affairs is one department that has come public with their requests to the AFP, with a spokeswoman saying that they ‘sought the assistance of the AFP in accessing metadata should it be required in the course of passport fraud investigations’. The Department stated that before the amendment, they used to have access to metadata, but that access is now restricted, impacting the way investigations into criminal matters are undertaken.

Privacy concerns

Dr Angela Daly, a technology law expert at the Queensland University of Technology, in an interview with the ABC expresses her concerns for government organisations willing to circumvent safeguards created to protect our privacy from being breached, whom should be the ones most willing to follow the rule of law.

As the law seems to be perpetually lagging behind how fast technology is advancing and evolving, one would argue for the necessity of these laws to protect the metadata of all Australians. When assessing the recent data leak of 96,000 public servants personal information and an increase in online interactions and transactions, it can be seen as to why the government is limiting access to our metadata to keep it contained and secure.

Let us know what you think about unauthorised government departments trying to access our metadata by tagging us #lawpath or @lawpath.

Logan Tennyson

Logan is a Paralegal working in our content team, which aims to provide free legal guides to facilitate public access to legal resources. With a passion for commercial and media law, his research explores how the law is adapting to emerging technologies and how this affects consumers and businesses alike.