The government has nine months to think of a valid reason to keep retaining your metadata

The government has nine months to think of a valid reason to keep retaining your metadata

A revision of Australia's data retention laws, 15 months in.

Words by Meggan Turner. Header via TVHeadedRobots.

It’s been just over nine months since your Internet Service Providers and Telcos started retaining your metadata in line with the Data Retention Act, and the conversation surrounding the change has been eerily absent. We’re ready to have a metadata baby, and your best friend hasn’t even organised a shower.

Since the data retention laws came into play last October, I have sent and received texts from 76 different numbers. I’ve sent and received well over 4000 emails. I don’t know how many phone calls I’ve made since then. I can request access to that information, but I’m not the only person who can. My local police station, for instance, could pretty easily get access to that information. I wouldn’t even know if they’d requested it though.

While there was an initial uproar over the invasion of privacy and the violation of your right to be considered innocent until proven guilty, there hasn’t really been any news about the laws since we heard which agencies wanted access to our metadata back in January. And therein lies the problem.

Possibly more troubling than the lack of uproar is the lack of validation. There have been no, ‘Hey, I told you so’ moments from the government in the last nine months. Surely after the backlash both major parties received after the laws were passed, they would be bending over backwards to tell us that they were right and we were wrong. But there’s been nothing. No major crimes solved, no terrorist attacks prevented, nothing, as far as we’re concerned, that can justify the retention of our metadata.

Why not? Is everything being kept hush hush in some new sweeping gesture of privacy? Is it because metadata doesn’t actually provide any value? Is it because we haven’t solved anything? Is it because everyone’s using a VPN anyway, and the only metadata being collected is from your parents’ email?

Maybe it’s all of these, and maybe it’s none of them (except the second one. If you’re still not convinced that metadata paints a pretty intimate picture of your life, check out MIT Media Lab’s project Immersion).

The lack of news probably has a lot to do with the fact that most of our online communications data is stored overseas anyway. If the Australian Government did have access to this offshore, none of this evidence would be admissible in a court of law. But with a mandatory review of the bill coming up in the next two years, there is enormous potential for this to change.

We’ve always known how easily we can avoid having our metadata retained. Hell, even the inventor of the internet (and then Communications Minister) Malcolm Turnbull has offered suggestions. Yeah, tips for avoiding the consequences of the bill from the man who ended up pushing that very same bill through parliament.

So if we know that the laws aren’t effective, and if the government knows the laws aren’t effective, and even if the data points to some countries seeing a mere 0.006% increase in the crime clearance rate, why have we implemented these laws at all?

My concern is that this is just the beginning. That this seemingly pointless attempt to invade your privacy is merely an excuse to lay the foundations of a far more invasive scheme. Offshore data doesn’t stand up in court, but that doesn’t mean it won’t in the future. Telcos and ISPs are only required to retain metadata for a period of two years, but that doesn’t mean that period won’t increase.

The government has dealt with a lot of backlash and spent a lot of money implementing these laws, and they’re not going to give them up without a fight, so why stop now? These first two years could very well be a baby step, a period to get you warmed up to the idea that retaining information about civilians is important; that the impact it has on our day-to-day lives is a worthwhile sacrifice to keep us ‘safe’. When these laws get reviewed and the statistics show they haven’t achieved much, what’s to say the government won’t take an all or nothing approach?

So what can we do to prevent the imminent 1984-esque world we’re headed for? Don’t let the conversation die. Kick up a fuss, complain, sign a petition. Keep the conversation going so that public opinion doesn’t get swept under the carpet when the review rolls around. Keep using that VPN to stream Game Of Thrones. Message your weed guy on WhatsApp. Don’t accept the notion that mass surveillance of civilians is okay. Don’t accept that your privacy is not important. Don’t accept these dumb, expensive laws. Because there’s a lot we don’t know about how the data retention debate is going to play out.

And what we don’t know should scare us.