Australian Gov't Accessed Domestic Metadata Thousands Of Times, Shared Some Of It With China

from the making-a-nation-secure-by-busting-drug-dealers dept

The Australian government has released its latest report [PDF] on its domestic metadata collection efforts and it has a bit of surprising news in it. Josh Taylor and Paul Farrell of Buzzfeed report the Australian government isn’t keeping all the domestic metadata it’s hoovered up to itself. It’s sharing it with several other countries, including one surprising name:

There were a total of 23 disclosures of information from the Australian Federal Police to enforcement agencies in other countries in that year. In addition to China, Australia handed over metadata to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Serbia, Switzerland, Solomon Islands, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Argentina, Slovenia, Canada, Germany, Singapore, Indonesia, the United States of America, Papua New Guinea, the Republic of Ireland, Netherlands, Spain, and France.

China’s the odd one here and it only makes the list of Australian data-sharing partners because Australia has a distinct interest in extraditing criminals from China for prosecution. A 2007 mutual assistance treaty laid the groundwork for the handover of Australians’ metadata, but this appears to be the first time Australia has actually done so.

The spokesperson for the Australian Attorney-General’s office says this is perfectly fine. In fact, Australia has already handed over metadata to Hong Kong, so why not China? Everyone’s rights are being looked out for by the Australian government… according to the Australian government. This is from AG George Brandis’ office:

“Given the global nature of serious transnational and organised crime, effective international cooperation is critical. Any cooperation, including with China, is subject to safeguards to ensure compliance with our international human rights obligations.”

Adding a twist to this data-sharing arrangement is there might not have been any metadata to share in the first place. The government actually had to put a law in place demanding ISPs retain metadata for the government for an extended period of time… just in case the government decided it needed it. Left to their own devices, ISPs would have dumped the data as soon as practical (read: ran out of interested private partners). Now they’re obliged to keep it… just in case Australia wants to hand it over to known humans rights violators like the Chinese government in exchange for extradition.

There are other discomfiting details in the latest report. Last year, 33 authorizations were made to collect metadata on Australian journalists — all of them coming from a single agency, the Western Australia Police. This low-key surveillance of journalists also comes courtesy of the same law changes that compelled ISPs to retain this metadata in the first place. As Taylor and Farrell report, the concessions made to pass the law limited the number of agencies with access to the data, but allowed law enforcement to target journalists — provided they secure something called a “journalist information warrant,” which is done in secret and allows the government to grab the information without the target being notified.

Overall, the government accessed Australians’ metadata (which may include web browsing history) thousands of times, mostly for banal reasons. Selling data retention to the public and hesitant legislators meant talking a lot about terrorism and child exploitation, but the numbers show those requests are far outnumbered by normal law enforcement work.

Of these requests, 57,166 were related to illicit drug offences, 25,245 requests were for homicide offences, and 4,454 requests were made to assist terrorism investigations.

For an outlay of $66 million in metadata costs (paid to ISPs, reimbursing 80% of their compliance costs), the government netted 366 arrests in 2015-16. This raises the question of how often metadata is accessed just because it can be accessed or for purely speculative reasons.

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Comments on “Australian Gov't Accessed Domestic Metadata Thousands Of Times, Shared Some Of It With China”

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Cowardly Lion says:

Safeguarding my arse

"Any cooperation, including with China, is subject to safeguards to ensure compliance with our international human rights obligations."

I’m calling bullshit on Brandis’ weasel-words. How the hell can they safeguard how China will use this data? They can’t. How can Brandis possibly prevent China from amalgamating this data with data they already hold, to use as, say, an immigration filter. Or to help better target their intelligence assets.

Brandis is a sell-out.

Anonymous Coward says:

As an Australian, I actually can’t add much to this discussion. From what I recall the local ISP’s were all against keeping all of the metadata, some for privacy reasons, others for financial reasons. Unfortunately George Brandis is not an elected person but the Govoner General, in theory representing the Queen, but selected by the Prime Minister. Whoever is selected, as far as I know, gets to stay as the Govoner General until they resign the post themself.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Senator George Brandis represents Queensland, no, sorry, he represents those with money and power and gives them more money and power.

As for the Western Australian police wanting journalists records, last year the right wing Liberal government was on the nose and on the way out at the recent state election after wasting rivers of gold from a decade of mining royalties yet putting the state $30 billion deeper in debt. Betty’s Jetty, a new sports stadium and a road to nowhere just so they could destroy an environmentally important wetland was just some of the things the money was spent on and journalists were getting right up the nose of the Premier, Emperor Col Pot, some something had to be done to stay in power.

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