Most Australian civilians are still confused about metadata. Tony Abbott was good enough to do away with any doubt as to his own ignorance, by virtue of that excruciating ‘envelope’ metaphor on the Today show in August 2014. George Brandis clawed his way through an even more incompetent explicatory attempt in an interview on Sky Australia at around the same time. Hopefully, as these men are two of the big players attempting to hustle the scheme through Parliament, they’ve bettered their understanding in the months since. Even so, is their purpose at all justifiable or are we all just being fucked here?
The Coalition is selling its metadata retention proposal as a national security measure, which feels a bit uncomfortable considering that the scheme is seeking to keep an eye on each and every one of us. As it is, according to Senator Scott Ludlam, Australian security agencies along with some state limbs such as Centrelink and the Victorian Building Commission, already have the capability to acquire metadata without a warrant. Furthermore, they don’t have to report how much they collect and they don’t have to destroy it once they’ve collected it.
"It’s quite disingenuous for the government to grin and promise that it isn’t interested in your piracy while simultaneously plotting to open the door for private corporations to hunt you down"
There’s still more: security agencies have the power to assign Data Preservation Notices, or DPNs, to specific suspects; a process that is, according to Greens senator Scott Ludlam, ‘effectively targeted discriminate data retention for persons of interest’. In layman’s terms, if you’re assigned a DPN by ASIO they will build an exclusive catalogue of your metadata over time. This facility seems like it would prove useful and necessary in some cases, but do we need to expand it any further? As far as I’m concerned, merely based on the points noted above, it seems as though ASIO has enough surveillance power as it is. Will granting them the ability to sift through a two-year stockpile of our digital footprints really make us feel any safer?
There’s also the question of cost. How will the retention be paid for? Will its interference in our privacy simultaneously empty our pockets? Scott Ludlam has explicitly stated that every Australian with an Internet connection and a phone will be pinched in some way, whether in the form of increased service charges from ISPs or additional taxation. Some have affectionately dubbed the latter possibility—or probability, depending on how realistic you’re feeling—a ‘surveillance tax’.
According to the ABC, iinet have speculated that metadata storage will cost them alone around 100 million dollars a year. If a single service provider could face such an astronomical annual cost, what kind of collective sum will the entire ISP industry find itself confronted with? The figure is interesting considering Tony Abbott recently estimated that the overall annual impact of the bill wouldn’t exceed 400 million. When the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) released its proposed revisions to the metadata bill on February 27th, one of the recommendations was that the government should offer ‘monetary compensation for service providers to cover the costs of implementing the scheme’. If the costs are going to be this high and the pollies are going to have to dish some handouts, you can bet that we’re all going to feel a sting.
During a press conference in October 2014, AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin stated that pursuing online pirates was ‘absolutely’ something that metadata retention legislation would assist in. Just a day later, Colvin publicly back-pedalled and distanced himself from these remarks. Drawing a murky distinction between ‘criminal’ and ‘civil’ matters, he later claimed that the AFP would only be using retained metadata to investigate the former.
While it’s heartening to hear that the Feds won’t be kicking down our doors for illegally downloading a Game of Thrones episode, the fact that nearly every powerful official who has spoken on the metadata issue seems fundamentally unclear on its mechanics is more than a bit worrying. What’s more, if the scheme does become law, rights holders—for example, the company that owns the Dallas Buyers’ Club film—will have an enormous pool of information to dig through whenever they decide to subpoena an ISP while looking to match IP addresses of copyright infringers. So, in the end, it’s quite disingenuous for the government to grin and promise that it isn’t interested in your piracy while simultaneously plotting to open the door for private corporations to hunt you down. This issue is an apt metaphor for the misunderstanding and murk that has enveloped the Coalition’s handling of the metadata proposal.
At the end of the day, it’s a game of numbers: the proposal is a parliamentary bill. According to Scott Ludlam, if 38 votes of opposition could be amassed it could be shot down. The Greens would provide 10, but the rest would have to come from the Labor camp. For Bill Shorten and his court to aid the effort, Ludlam supposes that they would have to be assured of a sufficient amount of civil support with no risk of public backlash in the future. Unfortunately, the cogs are already turning and this eventuality seems unlikely: Labor have pledged to approve the scheme if the Coalition observes the recommendations made by the bipartisan PJCIS.
Considering the extent of ASIO’s current powers of access, not to mention the fact that even entities like the Taxi Driver Directorate have been known to sift through Australians’ metadata, perhaps the retention proposal isn’t the evil governmental masterstroke some alarmists have made it out to be. It seems as though we’re already mired in some fundamentally flawed legislation. However, I think it’s safe to say that this bill could result in ‘something that … is much, much worse’, to quote Ludlam once more. Comprehensive public surveillance of any kind is not a healthy or promising avenue to explore.