Australia's Attorney General Says Metadata Collection Won't Track Your Web Surfing, Just The Web Addresses You Visit (Huh?)
from the say-what-now? dept
Australian Attorney General George Brandis seems to be working extra hard to demonstrate just how completely clueless he really is. On both copyright and surveillance, it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t even remotely understand the details, but is willing to go all in to support some misleading claims that someone told him. On the surveillance front, he recently claimed (incorrectly) that data retention rules are a must (and that whistleblowers should be thrown in prison). The data retention rules are getting some attention because it’s pretty clear that Brandis is advocating for a massive expansion in data retention and collection for many different purposes (i.e., expanding it to cover “crime-fighting in general” as opposed to just terrorism/national security).
However, it’s pretty clear that he has no idea what this all means. He gave an absolute train-wreck of a TV interview on SkyNews, trying to defend the policy, in which he claims that the metadata rules won’t track your web surfing habits, but just what websites you visit — as if that’s a different thing. You can see the video here. It’s quite incredible. First he claims that the telcos “already collect this data” for billing purposes, but they want to change the law because now flat rate plans mean telcos might not track this data. But then he jumps to internet metadata (which, uh, has never required tracking for billing purposes) and things get ridiculous quickly.
SkyNews host: Well, the Prime Minister today said “it’s not what you’re doing on the internet, it’s the sites you’re visiting.” So will it be the sites you’re visiting?
George Brandis: Well, well, it… it wouldn’t extend, for example, to web surfing. So, what people are viewing on the internet is not going to be caught.
Host: So it’s not the sites you’re visiting.
Brandis: Well… um… what people are viewing on the internet when they web surf is not going to be caught. What will be caught is the… is the… is the, um… the web address they communicate to.
Host: Okay, so it’s only the… I’m sorry… the web address? If I go to an internet site, that will be recorded and available?
Brandis: The web address… um… is… is part of the metadata.
Host: The website.
Brandis: Well, the web address. The electronic address of the website.
Host: Okay. If I go to the SkyNews website, the Australian website, a more questionable website, that will be… is that what we’re talking about here?
Brandis: Well, I… b… m… m…. m… the… what you’re viewing on the internet is not what we’re interested in. And that’s not what we’re…
Host: You’ll be able to see whether I’ve been to that website or that website or that website.
Brandis: Well, what we’ll be able… what the security agencies want to know… to be retained… is the… is the electronic address of the website that the web user is visiting.
Host: So it does tell you the website.
Brandis: Well… well… it tells you the address of the website.
Host: That’s the website, isn’t it? It tells you what website you’ve been to.
Brandis: Well, when… when you visit a website you… you know, people browse from one thing to the next and… and… that browsing history won’t be retained or… or… or… there won’t be any capacity to access that.
Host: Excuse my confusion here, but if you are retaining the web address, you are retaining the website, aren’t you?
Brandis: Well… the… every website has an electronic address, right?
Host: And that’s recorded.
Brandis: And… um… whether there’s a connection… when a connection is made between one computer terminal and a web address, that fact and the time of the connection, and the duration of the connection, is what we mean by metadata, in that context.
Host: But… that is… telling you… where… I’ve been on the web.
Brandis: Well, it… it… it… it… it… it… it records what web… what at… what electronic web address has been accessed.
Host: I don’t see the difference between that and what website I’ve visited.
Brandis: Well, when you go to a website, commonly, you will go from one web page to another, from one link to another to another, within that website. That’s not what we’re interested in.
Host: Okay. So the overarching… if I go to… SkyNews website, it’ll tell that, but not necessarily the links within that that I go to?
I wouldn’t normally include stuttering and false starts in a transcript, but in this case it seems somewhat necessary to show the level at which Brandis was clearly uncomfortable with the subject matter. The conversation then goes on to metadata for social media, and Brandis takes the easy out here saying that the rules are still being discussed. However, he does admit that metadata will be used for criminal investigations.
We’ve long argued that metadata is incredibly revealing, and anyone who claims it’s “just metadata” has no clue what they’re talking about. But here, Brandis takes that cluelessness to a new level. It’s pretty clear that he is totally and completely ignorant of what he’s discussing. At times it suggests he thinks that the web address doesn’t reveal what you’ve been reading, and I thought maybe he thought that there’s a real distinction between the web address and what you see on the page (which would be ridiculous). But at the end, he seems to imply that ISPs will only be asked to record the top level domain of pages you visit… which is… equally unlikely and almost certainly false. Everywhere else he says the “web address” which would be a lot more than the top level domain.
Either way, it seems abundantly clear that he doesn’t understand the details, yet is pushing for legislation to make things happen when he is either completely ignorant of what it means, or he knows exactly what it means and knows that people would revolt over it, so he’s trying to mislead everyone.
No matter what the truth is, he has no business setting up these rules.