Australian Officials Pushing For Data Retention Had No Idea What A VPN Is

from the government-follies dept

If you haven't yet, you really should watch the video we pointed to recently of Australian Attorney General George Brandis trying to explain his internet data retention plan when it's clear he has no idea how the internet works. It's the one where he's asked if it will track the web pages you visit, and Brandis vehemently insists that it will not, but that it will track the web addresses you visit. Some people have said that perhaps he meant it won't record the actual content on the pages, but just the URL (which might matter if it's dynamic pages), but later in the conversation, he also implies (almost clearly incorrectly) that he means it will just track the top level domains, not the full URLs. Here's a reminder snippet:
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?

Brandis: Yes.
While it's a bit of a third hand story, Reason recently did an interview with Australian Senator David Leyonhjelm (who is against data retention, and describes himself as libertarian). Towards the end of the interview, he discusses data retention and tells a very troubling story about how those pushing for data retention had no idea what a VPN is. The story involves a much more knowledgeable government official -- which Gizmodo Australia suspects is Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull -- demonstrating a VPN and leaving them all dumbfounded:
The other one that's causing a fair bit of grief is a metadata retention plan, the equivalent of what your NSA does. We don't have metadata retention at the moment and the agencies have been saying, "Oh, well we should have it. You can't use it if you haven't got it," sort of thing. But I spoke to one of the ministers last week about this because he does know what "metadata" means—he knows quite a lot about the Internet and how it works—He said to me people who are asking for this data, people who are thinking this is a good idea, actually have no idea what they're asking for. They don't know what they're going to do with it. They don't know what the implications of requiring it are. They haven't really thought this through.

He gave them a demonstration on a VPN [virtual private network] and said, "By my IP address, tell me what you can find out about me now." And they had no idea there was such a thing as a VPN. It indicates to me that these people are not well-informed enough to make these kinds of decisions. As it stands, it may be that the government may only require the Internet companies to store the IP address of the originating Internet use, so they'll know what computer you're from and what IP you're working from, which is not a lot different from keeping a record of the phone you're calling from. So if that's the case, it's probably not going to pose too much alarm. He's a minister and he knows what he's talking about. But he's surrounded by people who don't know what they're talking about who think that they need something more. We don't know yet where this will end up. It does have the potential to be very dangerous.
Now, the story does not make it entirely clear about who he's talking about. It could be read to be Brandis or his staff that didn't know about VPNs. Or, much more troubling, it could be read to be the intelligence community -- though I find that hard to believe. Either way, however, it does suggest a sort of blind adherence to the "collect it all" philosophy of intelligence gathering, without any real understanding of the issues or consequences.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    william (profile), Aug 15th, 2014 @ 11:51am

    That first transcript is a deja vu on when I was working as support for a TV top internet device, where the average customer age is 55+

    Ahhh... memories of asking a customer if their network cable is plugged in and getting an answer of "huh?". Additional explanation of asking them if they "see a line, coming out of the back of the box, that connects to the wall" and getting an answer of "what's a line?" Eventually after 20mins, the old gentleman says he'll wait till his son is back then call again.

    God I have such disdain for humanity after that job...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 15th, 2014 @ 12:00pm


    Hey whippersnapper I'm over 55 and have been working in software and hardware development since 1977. I know many older than I am, male and female, who are still in the business and at the sharp end of developing new products and systems. I'll admit sometimes it's fun to play dumb with some young tech installer or support person, it's truly amazing how little some of them know.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    ArkieGuy (profile), Aug 15th, 2014 @ 12:54pm

    Not saving url

    It sounds to me like the minister was trying to say "we aren't going to save the URL you visited, just the IP address". While "better", in many instances it's pretty darned close to the same amount of info.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 15th, 2014 @ 1:02pm

    Re: Not saving url

    Store the IP. Then on multi-homed machines, you can't tell the site or page i visited

    or, store the name. then you can't tell when someone bad uploads something bad to where they uploaded it.

    name + ip + path = meta data.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 15th, 2014 @ 1:34pm

    what ie really worrying is that Brandis, who is pushing the hardest for this, is in the position to push for this data retention and he hasn't got a fucking clue! how the hell can someone who is so incompetent and illiterate over these issues have the power and authority to make the law? he should be thrown back to law school rather than have the authority to decide that all his fellow Australians need to be spied on, constantly! it's exactly the same in other countries. the desire to have the ability to screw the public into the ground has come from the USA, as usual, because of the paranoia that has been developed since 9/11. everyone agrees that it was the most horrendous act that could have happened but to now start doing the terrorists job for them, by instilling so much fear of what will happen if the people dont surrender every bit of their freedom and privacy, those in charge who are spreading their paranoia seem to be reveling in what they are forcing others to do, just to feed their own insecurity. this is obviously being spread to the '5 Eyes' and the worrying thing about it is that they are falling for the same paranoia too. no one wants to be held under the hammer of terrorism but equally, no one wants their own government and security forces to be acting worse than the terrorists and making the citizens feel as if they are already under the terrorist hammer!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 15th, 2014 @ 1:38pm

    Guess it's time to educate , Instead of looking down on those who are skilled in other areas or simply too afraid too ask , I teach as much as I can to who ever I can when asked or If I see them struggling , while I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed , I consider it one the best practices I ever started .

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    william (profile), Aug 15th, 2014 @ 2:10pm

    Re: Re:

    I don't disagree that knowledgeable people with the intention are really up to date on tech.

    However, they are the minority, far and few between. People who gets set top internet device are really on the less knowledgeable end of the spectrum. I personally think that the product is a good concept (in the early 2000's) and it does help some of the old folks who doesn't use PC to get on the internet and do emailing and surfing etc. However, when it breaks, these types of users are really not in position to self-trouble shoot.

    PS. I don't really believe that Texas gentleman who threatened to call the police on me because I can't stop "people in the IRC channel bad mouthing President Bush" are pulling my strings... wait a sec...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 15th, 2014 @ 3:30pm

    Fear is a powerful thing

    I recently had a discussion with my brother in law, whom I respect very much, about some of these subjects covered on techdirt. About the misuse of power and the so called "security" we all need. He was so convinced that we needed this security no matter the consequences.
    He asked me this question: "What if a terrorist bombed a building and your family got killed?" and I asked him "I hope that I would remain sane enough to still feel the same as I do now, because I am sure you wouldn't want me to go kill innocent people, torture them and destroy our society that you love, for your sake, if it happened to you. That is basically what we are doing now"
    He agreed that he wouldn't want that... and then he said "but still we need this".
    My point is that there is no reason in fear. Logic is often left in the dust when fear is involved, it doesn't matter to these people that they don't know enough or that the consequences of their decisions could be catastrophic because fear has a tight grip.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    tracyanne, Aug 15th, 2014 @ 6:47pm

    Re: Fear is a powerful thing

    Perhaps a better question might be. "What if the police raided your family home on the suspicion that you or your wife or someone staying in your family home was a terrorist, and your family got killed, because the police thought someone who was holding a mobile phone had a gun... and later it turned out their raid was based on misinformation" because that is the sort of society we are currently creating, by passing these security at all costs laws.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Kronomex, Aug 15th, 2014 @ 7:01pm

    Ye gods, I'm beginning to wonder if they have problems with going from rotary dial phones to push button phones as well.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 15th, 2014 @ 7:34pm

    First they collected

    First the collected metadata to fight terrorists, and I did not speak out for I am not a terrorist.

    Then they collected more to identify domestic terrorists, and I did not speak out for I am not a domestic terrorist.

    Then they built a huge data center and collected more to identify whistle blowers, and I did not speak out for I am not a whistle blower.

    Then they collected everything about everyone, and no one dares speak out for fear they will publicaly expose the most intimate details of your life.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    RexAlan, Aug 16th, 2014 @ 12:30am

    Australian Officials Pushing For Data Retention

    I really agree with "Anonymous Coward's" point of view. My uncle fought and died defending the right to go about ones business without being spied upon at every opportunity bye those who claim to represent us in government.

    Privacy is not about hiding criminal behavior although unfortunately it sometimes does. Even still I am totally opposed to data retention on everybody.

    If these laws go through it will be like living in an open prison.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    TestPilotDummy, Aug 16th, 2014 @ 1:40am

    I bet they're just OATH BREAKERS (and or equivalent in Australia) playin dumb and exploiting all available for an ultimate plausible denial-ability, claim stupidity or whatever they get their rotten ass hands on

    After all they just hooked up with US for this WW3 CRAP

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    Padpaw (profile), Aug 16th, 2014 @ 6:57am


    he is just a tool being used as a public face of whoever group actually want this law passed

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 16th, 2014 @ 6:00pm

    Or, much more troubling, it could be read to be the intelligence community -- though I find that hard to believe.
    It could be the senior management of the intelligence community, which is believable even if you think that the actual analysts are well informed and technologically savvy. Most large organizations have at least a few senior people who could not explain the technical details of their subordinates' jobs even to save their own. If he showed it to that kind of person, it wouldn't matter what their subordinates do for a living.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. icon
    Craig Welch (profile), Aug 17th, 2014 @ 7:46am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Most of the people I know who are over 55 can write properly. You know, grammar and stuff? Just saying.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    Craig Welch (profile), Aug 17th, 2014 @ 7:48am


    "God I have such disdain for humanity after that job".

    So from your lofty all-knowing perch you have disdain for older people because they don't know as much as younger people about newer technology.

    That tells us little about older people but much about you.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Matt, Aug 17th, 2014 @ 5:07pm

    Its not Signals Intelligence...

    Its the AGs office. Aust Signals Intelligence is among the best in the world and they know what they can do with it.

    Irony is under the AG's office are people that do know, but they arent being asked the question. The AG is asking the media company lobbyists that got him elected for his talking points.

    Only problem is he doesnt understand them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2014 @ 6:42am

    Re: Its not Signals Intelligence...

    Australian AGs (state and federal) seem to be chosen purely on the basis of being the most socially-conservative, nannyish, reactionary, and ill-informed lawyer on the government benches.

    OTOH, not asking the experts until after determining and announcing policy is pretty normal for ministers in general. The problem isn't so much that they don't understand what they're told, but that they don't ask until it is too late.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Aug 18th, 2014 @ 9:02am

    Re: Re: Re:

    "it does help some of the old folks who doesn't use PC to get on the internet and do emailing and surfing etc."

    My problem is the use of the term "old folks". I've not noticed a strong correlation between age and competence on the computer. Most people aren't competent regardless of age. Your statement would be much better if you omitted the word "old".

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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