Metadata Retention Plans Are ‘Not A Mass Invasion Of Privacy’, Says Australia’s Top Spy

ASIO director general David Irvine. Screengrab

Australian security service ASIO and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) have moved to allay fears they will spy on the internet use of Australians under new Abbott Government counter-terrorism laws.

Bungled attempts to explain plans for two years of mandatory metadata retention by telecommunications companies by the Attorney-General George Brandis and Prime Minister Tony Abbott led to confusion and growing concern that the government was rolling out a Big Brother monitoring scheme.

But ASIO director general David Irvine said the domestic spy agency would only target specific people and not “rake over” data from all Australians.

“This is not a mass invasion of privacy,” he said. “This is not a new power, it’s a consolidation of existing ones.”

He said he didn’t understand why the issue was so controversial.

Irvine said the growing problem for law enforcement agencies is that, increasingly, for commercial reasons, telecommunications companies are not retaining information they once did, preventing ASIO and the AFP from retrieving vital evidence.

“In the old days… the telephone company sent you an itemised bill,” Irvine said. “Increasingly, with changes in technology, that sort of information is less required in the business models of telcos and ISPs than it was.

“We would like a uniform standard so that law enforcement and security organisations can have access to it.

“Our ability to access the what, where, when and how of telecommunications… is an absolutely crucial tool for the protection of Australia,” Irvine said.

Authorities make around 300,000 requests for metadata annually. AFP deputy commissioner Andrew Colvin said that increasingly, that data was now missing, but “couldn’t put a number on it”.

“Metadata is a fundamental law enforcement tool to prevent crime,” he said as well as being an “initial investigative tool… of where an investigation should go”.

“If we were to lose this, our ability to solve and prevent crime would be severely impaired, he said.

The pair were at pains to say that ISPs would not be expected to retain details on what websites people visited, and that even if they did, authorities would require a warrant to obtain the details.

“The URL is content and not permissible without a warrant,” Colvin said.

A warrant would also be required to evesdrop on a Skype conversation.

“We would need to get a warrant to look at the content of Facebook,” Irvine said.

The details on when and to whom and from on an email would be retained, but not the subject or content, they said.