Council phone checks as evidence in wider issue
There is concern over big gaps in government reports on how often Australians' private internet and phone records have been accessed by law-enforcement, and one city council is becoming the poster child.
A recent Attorney-General's Department annual report showed there were 339,067 warrantless metadata “authorisations” in 2012-13, but a separate report from the Australian Communications Media Authority says there were in fact 551,942 authorised "disclosures" in the year.
ACMA's 2013-14 report, which was tabled this week, shows 582,727 authorised "disclosures" this year, but new figures from the AGD's metadata report are yet to be released.
The difference between the 2012-13 AGD and ACMA reports is 212,875.
It appears that the disparity may be innocent enough, and created by differences in how the numbers are compiled.
Fairfax Media reports; “If a request was made for someone's mobile and landline call data under one authorisation, for example, this would count as two ‘disclosures’ under ACMA's report and one ‘authorisation’ under the AGD's.
“If a person of interest had multiple mobile subscriptions with a number of carriers, that single authorisation can also result in multiple disclosures of their metadata.”
Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, who chairs a multiparty committee inquiry into a review of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979, says either figure is too high, and has used evidence from the Ipswich City Council in Queensland as an example of the potential for over-reach.
Senator Ludlam said warrantless access was inadequate.
“Quite frankly a lot of people, including myself, believe the [Attorney-General's Department] figure of 330,000 is completely over the top considering that none of it is applied through a lawful warrant,” Senator Ludlam said.
He said the system was “broken”.
“What [the disparity in reports] tells us is that we need to tighten the criteria by which material is being accessed and there have been a number of reviews that have recommended that,” Senator Ludlam said.
“The number of agencies that can access this material is out of control because there's no limit or no real accountability as is provided with a lawful warrant process.”
Senator Ludlam said Ipswich City Council's has made warrantless requests for metadata just to prosecute illegal signage.
He described as “one of the most trivial examples I have heard of”.
The council's request is “a good case study of how pervasive warrantless metadata snooping actually is,” Senator Ludlam said.
Media outlet the Queensland Times reports that Ipswich City made six requests for metadata to Telstra in 2012-13, asking for the names and addressed linked to owners of four mobile phone numbers which were displayed on illegal signage.
Reports say the Council successfully prosecuted all four.
In a letter to the editor of the Queensland Times, Ipswich City Council COE Jim Lindsay said that council officers “are bound by the Code of Conduct under the Local Government Act which restricts them to accessing only such information as required to undertake their enforcement duties”.
Senator Ludlam said it was not about what the council did, but why it was able to do it that was the issue.
“Looking at the way the practice has been applied in the last decade, police didn't have to get a warrant to basically read the Whitepages that says which subscriber name is attached to that number.
“It would probably be over the top to force an agency to pull down a warrant to get subscriber information.
“But any agency that is charged with the protection of public revenue can access this (metadata) material which is why it lets local governments through the gate.
“It means there are effectively many hundreds of agencies that can get it, and the due process that attaches to that is very low.
“It is simply fill out some paperwork, give it to the phone company and they have to provide that information.
“With or without a warrant, a remarkably large number of people are able to fish around inside the telecommunications network identifying people,” Senator Ludlam said.
Ipswich Councillor Andrew Antoniolli said; “If…the federal government wishes to change the legislation to restrict access so it is limited to only name and address details for local government then so be it.”