Months of often heated discussion about the necessity and scope of state surveillance came to a head late last week as controversial data retention legislation was passed by Australia's Parliament with a clear Senate majority.
The legislation, which saw the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014 passed by a margin of 43 votes to 16, had become a focal point for concerns about increasing state surveillance under the current conservative government.
The plan has been variously criticised for its unclear scope and cost – recently estimated to be up to $400 million per year – as well as information-security issues and overall concern about the construction of a 'surveillance state' based on broad concerns about the potential for terrorist activities.
The government has has pushed for the laws amidst growing concern about law enforcement agencies' ability to use metadata about Australians' communications as evidence in their investigations.
Prime minister Tony Abbott pushed hard for the laws to be passed by the end of March, warning that the metadata was “essential in fighting most major crimes”.
Greens senator Scott Ludlam, a fervent opponent of the legislation, led a dissenting chorus of voices in warning proponents of the legislation that “you will be judged” for the new legislation.
Details of the legislation are still being worked out, with the government in negotiations with telecommunications providers about the extent of its contribution to the systems necessary for the policy.
But proponents were feting concessions such as specific protections for journalists – concerned about the potential for metadata to compromise the anonymity of sources – as a sign of bipartisan support after Labor put aside initial reluctance to support the amended legislation.
In a recent Protiviti survey, 64 percent of respondents said metadata retention was acceptable as long as adequate security controls were put in place to protect the data.
There are lingering concerns that the collection of masses of metadata will make the repositories an attractive target for hackers, requiring adequate security controls to be put in place to protect the data.
Data retention has a chequered history in other countries: Swedish authorities recently threatened an ISP in that country with a significant fine if it didn't step into line on the issue, while the European Union struck down data-retention laws as unconstitutional last year.
Dutch authorities recently did away with data retention in that country, with even amended laws judged to be unconstitutional and the country's telecommunications providers this week ordered to delete data collected under data-retention laws.
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