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Data retention, governance and privacy

Matt Tett

Matt Tett is the Managing Director of Enex TestLab, an independent testing laboratory with over 22 years history and a heritage stemming from RMIT University. Matt holds the following security certifications in good standing CISSP, CISM, CSEPS and CISA. He is a long standing committee member of the Australian Information Security Association (AISA), Melbourne branch, and is also a member of the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA). Enex TestLab can be found at blog at and can be found on twitter as @enextestlab.

There has been a lot of coverage in recent months over the Australian Federal Governments proposition to implement a data retention policy. The debate is polarising and highly emotive, similar to that of the shelved mandatory Internet content filtering policy.

Some Australian citizens clearly dislike governments fiddling with their internetz. Likewise there are also a considerable number of logistical and technical challenges that such a program would need to overcome before being feasible, and if implemented, there are a number of circumvention techniques readily available, such as anonymous VPN services in “unregulated” countries who would benefit immensely by the patronage of those Australian internet users who wished to not have their activities recorded for posterity.

Essentially the Government has proposed tasking an agency, or Internet Service Providers (ISPs) with the requirement to store records of all internet user activity for a period of time. The reason for this is to enable law enforcement investigators (with reasonable cause) access to those records for evidence or to piece together cases.

There are almost as many arguments against this as there are for it--I don't wish to open that can of worms here. I would, however, like to expound upon a point raised by Sir Tim Berners-Lee when he was in Melbourne recently on a speaking tour. He espoused that even if it were technically possible, and the government enacted the legislation, and service providers complied with the requirement; where and who would be responsible for the storage of this data (particularly if this data were to be aggregated) it would be a pure gold-mine of sensitive, private information over an extended period of time—on every internet user in Australia.

How does the governance and security ensure 100% privacy for each service connected to the internet and the individuals who use those services? (Once this data is lost, there is no getting it back)

Suppose criminals got hold of some or all of it in the first-instance, and sold, released publicly or otherwise disseminated the material? Suppose, for example, insurance companies could see that a household’s internet service had been used to research a medical condition over a period of time? Even though there are a number of plausible reasons why someone might research it, a slight possibility that someone in that premises actually has that condition may be sufficient for the insurance company to consider the risk unacceptable, and not offer anyone in that premises coverage.

We all know that no data is 100 percent secure. The higher the value of the target information, the more chance of a breach there will be.

Sir Tim suggested that the handling of such sensitive, highly private data was akin to that of nuclear waste. It should be taken offline, far away from any network and stored in a highly secure bunker. The access process by any legitimate organisation would need to be onerous.

So those who are ambivalent argue we already have lawful intercept of transmissions for law enforcement investigations, things such as telephone calls are recorded as a component of the telcos’ billing systems. Phone tapping is an available tool if required. So what is the difference on the Internet?

This is the point, it is the internet. The average internet user expects the internet to be relatively anonymous, yet they also insist on using Google and Facebook. Many still wonder how ads appear targeted to their history and activities online, but key here is that those individuals have an option to participate or not.

If internet users were aware that big brother may be looking over their shoulders at any time, how would this affect their usage and experience of the Internet?

Tags: data retention, governance, privacy

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