Technology

Access to private internet, phone records up by 9 per cent - without warrants

Two city councils in Melbourne and Sydney are increasingly spying on residents by finding out who they are calling and emailing.

Knox City Council in Melbourne's east is the worst offender, followed by Bankstown Council in Sydney's west.

Knox City Council has tripled its requests to access metadata.
Knox City Council has tripled its requests to access metadata. Photo: Wayne Hawkins

Knox made 15 "metadata" requests in the year ended June 2015, up from just five in the previous year, according to a federal government report.

The metadata may include phone numbers of people who called each other and how long they talked to each other, or email addresses and what times messages were sent. Access to it does not require a warrant.

Sometimes a request might simply be for who the owner of a certain phone number is and what their address is.

Bankstown was granted access to residents' metadata on 13 occasions, up from seven in the previous period.

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Queensland's Ipswich City Council, which made 21 requests in 2013-14, has cut down on spying. It made just three metadata access requests in the year.

Melbourne's Darebin and Wyndham councils made one request each in 2013-14, but did not request any metadata this year.

However the number of requests by councils remains relatively steady overall, at 32 this year compared to 35 previously.

Other government agencies accessing citizens' private communication records include Australia Post, which made 625 requests in the period, down from 810. Various racing authorities, the RSPCA and the Tax Office are among other agencies that dip into metadata year after year.

A spokesperson for Australia Post said it requests phone records from telcos to chase people who steal phones or SIM cards from its stores, or to pursue people who make "serious threats" to staff or engage in corruption and fraud.

Overall requests up 9 per cent

The overall number of request authorisations for telco data, including for requests from police and other law enforcement agencies, leapt 9 per cent to 365,728 in the year to June 2015.

However the number of requests from non-law enforcement agencies, such as councils, fell slightly from 4018 in 2013-14 to 3941 this year.

A spokesperson for Bankstown Council said it had only accessed call records to place people suspected of illegally dumping waste at the scene of the offence, resulting in "a number of successful prosecutions". In one case around 20,000 tonnes of waste was dumped at five different sites, the spokesperson said.

Knox City Council was asked to explain what it used metadata for, but has yet to respond.

In previous years councils have admitted to using metadata to chase minor infringements such as unauthorised advertising, unregistered pets, and littering. Last year Sydney's Hills Shire Council told Fairfax it used metadata to track down a roof cleaner who had polluted a river.

The practice has become more common in a few short years. Back in the 2011-12 financial year, only two councils – Bankstown and Wyndham – were accessing metadata.

Before mandatory data retention legislation came into effect in October, a broad range of government agencies able to issue fines or "protect public revenue" had been automatically authorised to access citizens' metadata.

Since October – a period which will be covered in next year's report – non-law enforcement government agencies are required to apply directly to Attorney-General George Brandis before they can access the data.

The Attorney-General must consider a range of criteria when granting a request, including whether the agency has a binding privacy scheme, and whether the functions of the agency include investigating "serious contraventions" of the law.

Fairfax is awaiting a response from the Attorney-General's office as to which agencies, if any, have applied to access metadata. The Australia Post spokesperson said Australia Post was no longer accessing metadata.

Next year's report will also include detail on what metadata requests were used for.

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