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Invitation to Attorney-General George Brandis: metadata one-on-one

Date

Lindy Stephens

OPINION

Senator George Brandis has had trouble explaining exactly what the government has in mind.

Senator George Brandis has had trouble explaining exactly what the government has in mind. Photo: Andrew Meares

ThoughtWorks, a global technology company employing 200 people Australia, is concerned that Australian Attorney-General appears confused about data retention and metadata.

We stand ready to provide Senator Brandis with a briefing and clear explanation of the technical and practical aspects of metadata and data retention, in addition to outlining the considerable cost it poses to business.

Lindy Stephens is global director of people operations, ThoughtWorks.

Lindy Stephens is global director of people operations, ThoughtWorks. Photo: Supplied

ThoughtWorks believes in data austerity, or 'datensparsamkeit' in German, and promotes the practice of storing only data that is necessary rather than collecting everything that might be useful in the future.

When a company or government practises data austerity, the burden is on them to demonstrate a need for the data they store. They must make the case for sharing their data, rather than routinely collecting and storing it for policing, intelligence, or commerce. Germany has evolved laws that embrace this principle, not least due to the use of surveillance by former regimes.

A recent report from Human Rights Watch interviewed 46 journalists and 42 lawyers in the US to examine the impact of surveillance on their work in sectors that form part of any functioning democracy.

The report outlines how confidentiality between journalist and source, and between lawyer and client is undermined and compromised by surveillance and is leading to lawyers declining cases and journalists reporting less on issues that are vital to public discourse.

As technologists we are concerned that technology is being used to invade privacy in ways that courts have found to be unnecessary and disproportionate, and in ways that are undermining the work of journalists and lawyers.

Perhaps if the Attorney-General understood it better, he would be less inclined to enact data retention given that other countries have found it to be inconsistent with universally recognised human rights.

The data retention regime in Europe created real costs for internet service providers (ISPs) and telcos in the administration and labour required to collect, store, maintain and transfer data onto new or evolving systems.

These costs are hardest on small companies, with a competition and market impact, and ISPs are forced to pass on some of the costs to users. As iiNet has made clear, data retention costs everyone.

Advances in technology means data about telephone calls, emails, information accessed online, and detailed information about the location of mobile telephones, can be used to deduce very intimate details about a person’s associations, interests and activities.

As technologists, we believe it would be misleading in the extreme to minimise the significance of what can be learned through metadata; it is not trivial either in the quantity or quality of information contained.

One wouldn’t need to hear the conversation to make deductions about a phone call between a private individual and a divorce lawyer, or a cancer clinic, or a journalist.

Indeed, the US NSA’s former General Counsel Stewart Baker said in 2013, “metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life.  If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content.”

Blanket communications data retention was found by the European Court of Justice in April to violate the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The Court stated that data retention was a "serious interference with … the right to privacy and the right to protection of personal data".

Many states across Europe, including Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Belgium, Austria, Sweden and Greece, have found mass data retention to be superfluous, harmful or even unconstitutional.

A US federal judge, Richard J Leon in December 2013 ruled that a lawsuit challenging NSA bulk metadata collection had a “substantial likelihood of success”.

Lindy Stephens is global director of people operations, IT consultancy ThoughtWorks. The company is actively involved in moves to enshrine universal access to the internet.

21 comments so far

  • Yes, time the bigot got educated in his portfolio, he obviously is out if his depth. We still need some accountant to give our treasurer some training though..,

    Commenter
    BirkBorkasson
    Date and time
    August 07, 2014, 5:53PM
    • All the Abbott Government members are a lost cause. They're ideology driven, they won't listen to experts in their field. They reject science. Just look at Abetz's comments on links between abortion and breast cancer, refuted by the AMA. You can't educate these dinosaurs, they're heading for extinction at the next election.

      Commenter
      DaveB
      Date and time
      August 08, 2014, 7:37AM
    • If it is not in the Bible we don't want to know about it !

      Commenter
      adam
      Location
      yarrawonga
      Date and time
      August 08, 2014, 7:45AM
    • Saw George Brandis on TV last night. His desk hasn't even got a computer on it, however I'll bet he is a whiz with an abacus.

      Commenter
      adam
      Location
      yarrawonga
      Date and time
      August 08, 2014, 7:50AM
  • An analogy for meta-data collection; You visit a library at 12:15, you go to the non-fiction shelves, you peruse ‘art & architecture’, you pick up a book at 12:18, open the cover and flip a few pages, you put it back and pick up another at 12:20, you don’t open it but put it back on the shelf at 12:21. You leave the library at 12:30.
    Meta-data summary:
    Person 12.34.56.78 logs into 216.239.51.99 (Google) at 12:15
    Person 12.34.56.78 searches Google (art & architecture)
    Person 12.34.56.78 opens link 345.34.5.67 at 12:18
    Person 12.34.56.78 opens pages from link 345.34.5.67
    Person 12.34.56.78 opens link 4.56.89.0 at 12:20
    Person 12.34.56.78 logs out of 216.239.51.99 (Google) at 12:30

    Commenter
    Dave S
    Date and time
    August 07, 2014, 6:07PM
    • what was in that book dave?you flicked throu......next will be the camera filming you open that book.....next will be a gps tracker implanted in you at birth..next will be technology implanted into your brain to make you into a robot ....and i havent worked out what goes on next..can someone help me?

      Commenter
      skeptic
      Location
      perth
      Date and time
      August 08, 2014, 8:05AM
  • These pollies are lawyers, and not IT system administrator. So the whole thing is about continuing and making their current operations legal from Snowden revelation.

    Again, lawyers if you give them a chance, they'll argue about anti-gravity on behalf of client.

    They really think we are all idiots, because they THINK they had read more books.

    Commenter
    Gerson
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 07, 2014, 7:34PM
    • If Brandis can't determine Corporate sponsored content over Government sponsored content, God should give Brandis a seat at the Pearl Gates.

      Commenter
      Charlie
      Date and time
      August 07, 2014, 7:45PM
      • I wouldn't waste my time, I don't think his is nearly smart enough to understand. Plus he's too busy reading the books we paid for that the Australian National Audit Office says (are) "in areas that are at risk of being outside the scope of the entitlement" (source: The Australian 01/10/2013)

        Commenter
        DissDave
        Location
        Canberra
        Date and time
        August 07, 2014, 9:04PM
        • After yesterday's effort I don't think Peta is going to let George talk to anyone about anything for a while

          Commenter
          DC
          Date and time
          August 07, 2014, 10:17PM

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