Two of the nation's most senior security officials have made a rare public appearance to spell out exactly what internet data they want kept under controversial new data retention plans.
It comes as ASIO warns that despite the terror threat remaining at "medium" its agency is in “overload” because of the increased number of potential terror attacks around the country.
ASIO chief puzzled by data retention concerns
David Irvine says he's 'not quite sure why' the government's proposals have cause controversy.
And the country’s top spy has indicated he would be willing to accept more oversight when it comes to accessing metadata, including requiring authorities to secure a “generic warrant” that is currently not required.
Cabinet has approved plans to introduce mandatory data retention but uncertain explanations from Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Attorney-General George Brandis this week have fuelled confusion over exactly what sort of metadata the telcos would be required to store and whether it would include a user's web browsing history.
On Friday, ASIO chief David Irvine and deputy federal police commissioner Andrew Colvin fronted the media to reassure the public they are not asking the government to embark on a “mass great surveillance” or “mass invasion of privacy” of its citizens.
“The terrorist threat is suddenly starting to impact on Australian citizens and on the security of Australian citizens to a greater degree than it has in the past,” Mr Irvine told reporters in Canberra.
He said it was vital to “maintain and update the tools” authorities use to protect the country, including the storing of metadata, which the agencies want retained for two years.
Mr Irvine said: “We don't rake over bundles of metadata, we seek to access metadata on very specific cases where there is a very specific security intelligence purpose to do so."
Mr Irvine and Mr Colvin said they were not asking the telcos to keep any information that is not already stored and that authorities would be given no more access than is currently allowed, but wanted a “uniform standard” because new internet and mobile providers did not keep their data for as long as others.
The pair backed a revised definition of the metadata, issued by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull earlier on Friday, which ruled out a person’s browsing history.
Deputy commissioner Andrew Colvin said: “What the metadata will tell us is who owns the service, who owns the IP address they have been connecting.”
They said the only information they could seek from the telecommunications companies without a warrant would be the identity of a computer suspected to have accessed suspicious sites at a specific time and date. All other information would require a warrant.
“This is not a new power for law enforcement and security agencies in this country, it’s a consolidation and an attempt to get consistency in the storage provisions for data that we already collect and that we already use,” said Mr Colvin.
“Our ability to use metadata is just as important in eliminating people from suspicion as it is from incriminating them,” Mr Irvine added.
Metadata would not capture a person's behaviour on social media sites such as Facebook and the officials declined to say if they have the ability to intercept over-the-top applications such as messaging service WhatsApp and voice-over-internet calling service Skype.
They said they would need a warrant to access Skype and in a surprising move, Mr Irvine said the agencies would be open to greater oversight of their access to metadata.
He said the system would “grind to a halt” if he had to apply for a warrant for every single metadata request but said the agency could accept a generic warrant process – like the one currently in place for call data.
Mr Irvine said it is “absolutely crucial” that organisations like ASIO that operate in “opaque, non-transparent environments” be subject to rigorous oversight to ensure they “don’t step over the mark".
On the terror threat level, which Mr Abbott said on Tuesday remained at “medium”, Mr Irvine said the threat is now more widespread.
He said: “Where our volume of work has increased is that this event could occur in a dozen different places now where as before it was just a refined area.”