When You Crack Open The Surveillance Door, The Food Police Will Want Your Metadata

from the food-for-thought dept

As you may recall, late last year Australia put into effect a wonderfully ambitious data retention law that required ISPs in the country to do… well… something involving data retention. The problems began immediately, with ISPs unsure of exactly when they were supposed to start collecting all of this data, as the law allowed for some to petition to delay implementing the data collection, but the government hadn’t bothered to get back to many of them. Never mind what would happen once this same inept government actually received the mountains of data it had requested.

But those concerns are all about the practical utility of such a law, not the larger concerns over whether this kind of data collection ought to be happening to begin with. To see an example of why a free people shouldn’t allow the government to crack open this door, however, one needs only look again at the law in Australia. What was supposed to be collection chiefly to combat major criminal actions is now a collection that even the food police are trying to get in on. And, yes, I really do mean the food police.

If you are in the business of selling lamb chops, make sure you are weighing them properly: the National Measurement Institute wants warrantless access to Australians’ metadata to help them hunt down supermarkets skimping on portions. The NMI is one of 61 agencies that has applied to the attorney general, George Brandis, to be classed as a “criminal law-enforcement agency” in order to gain warrantless access to telecommunications data.

As part of the government’s assurances that there would be sufficient privacy safeguards, it reduced the number of agencies that could access the data. But agencies could reapply, with the permission of the attorney general, if they were involved in enforcing “serious contraventions” of criminal laws.

Now, this is still in the application phase, so the NMI, a government group tasked with investigating retailers to make sure they’re packaging their goods properly, doesn’t yet have access to Australian’s metadata, but its petition did have to be approved by the attorney general as being relevant to even get that far. This is what happens when you crack open the door: the bulk of government will try to force its way in. Keep in mind that the efficacy of bulk collection practices for combating even terrorism and serious criminal actions is debatable, but now we’re dealing with the food and retail packaging police wanting in on the action? This really should tell you everything you need to know.

Greens senator Scott Ludlam said: “The only saving grace the government was able to claim when they passed it was that they were narrowing the range of agencies that could access the data. On the face of it that was true, and obviously that’s just been blown to pieces.”

Just because slippery slope arguments are almost always lame, that doesn’t mean they don’t occasionally apply. It seems on bulk surveillance, they certainly do.

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Comments on “When You Crack Open The Surveillance Door, The Food Police Will Want Your Metadata”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Next on the list: Mass-surveillance to catch those that jaywalk, swear in public, and litter

I believe the thought process is something like this for how they feel that it’s justified for everyone(except the public of course) to have access to the data.

1. Terrorism is a crime.
2. The crime of terrorism is enough justification for warrant-less mass-surveillance.
3. If one crime is sufficient justification for that, then it only follows that other crimes are also justification for it.

Conclusion: Every agency involved in preventing and/or stopping crimes deserves to have access to warrant-less mass-surveillance data.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Next on the list: Mass-surveillance to catch those that jaywalk, swear in public, and litter

I think your subject line mis-underestimates (sic) the public good of allowing more agencies to access your meta data.

Once you catch one grocer selling under-weight lamb chops, you can use the meta data to discover who they network with on line. At least some of the people within their network, or people a second hop out from the grocer might also be selling under weight lamb chops. Just to be safe, all people three levels out should be investigated.

I suppose, just to keep the public really really safe, we should just investigate everyone up to seven levels out, based on the ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon’.

As for Jaywalking, swearing or littering, it can be difficult to discover the network structure of people who commit those crimes. But if you could find someone, somewhere, in a private email, or a tweet, or in a forum who admits to being a jaywalker, you can begin your investigation there. This can help prevent a network of jaywalkers from poisoning the minds of the young using social media to recruit new jaywalkers into their network of crime.

Anonymous Coward says:

…If you are in the business of selling lamb chops, make sure you are weighing them properly: the National Measurement Institute wants warrantless access to Australians’ metadata to help them hunt down supermarkets skimping on portions…

In my area we have a Weights & Measures department that issues CIVIL citations for such things. Violations are discovered either by customer complaint, ‘secret shopper’, or unannounced inspection which is a condition of the business license.

Criminal complaints occur only for repeat offenders and such cases are turned over to the Attorney General’s office.

Anonymous Coward says:


What I am struggling to see is how ISP metadata can be used to track sellers skimping on underweight food sales.

Are we talking long-term Fitbit data analysis where the assumed calorie intake less the amount expended on exercise falls short of explaining the person’s actual weight loss? Because that’s a new level of crazy.

Wendy Cockcroft says:

Re: Pre-crime

I believe the word you’re looking for is “pre-crime.” That’s what this is about.

Honestly, even if you’re scanning the metadata from online grocery shopping transactions I fail to see how this would help to identify underweight portions of anything, it’s not like the vendor would type out, “Muahahahahaa! I deceived you, shopper, now what are you going to do about it?” in font size: 4pt somewhere below the blurb about not printing out the email receipt.

Chances are, austerity has hit their department so hard they’re fishing for data they can sell on to marketing companies to bring in some revenue. /tinfoil

Wendy Cockcroft says:

Re: Re: Australian Agencies

Right, so you’re really going to send a mass email to your friends that goes, “LOL I just stomped on a kitten! Pic attached because it totally happened!!” or even “Well I’m off to sunny, sunny Spain, y viva España! BTW I’ve left Rover locked in the garage with no food or water.”

Seriously, this is bogus.

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