Five ways data retention will silence journalists and whistleblowers

March 6, 2015

The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment Bill 2014, also known as the “data retention” bill, if passed, will be the third installment of sweeping powers granted to Australian intelligence agencies.

It will mean that every move you make, every call you take, the government will be watching you.

How does data retention impede the role of investigative journalists, political reporters and whistleblowers?


Mandatory data retention requires internet service providers (ISPs) and telecommunications companies to store data for two years.

Does this then pose a risk of being hacked? Jon Lawrence from Electronic Frontier Australia says the answer is “yes”. "What this is doing is so comprehensive that the information will be held by many different organisations that have varying levels of security,” Lawrence said. “Many of those won't be as sophisticated as Telstra, and even Telstra has security problems. The reality is that this information will be compromised, no question about it."

This assessment is backed by the Symantec 2014 Internet Security Threat Report, which says: "The total number of breaches in 2013 was 62% greater than in 2012, with 253 total breaches … Eight of the breaches in 2013 exposed more than 10 million identities each. In 2012 only one breach exposed over 10 million identities."


If journalists are unable to investigate leads and check facts, then what good is press freedom?

Director of Civil Liberties Australia Tom Vines told Green Left Weekly: "Data retention will make it very hard, if not practically impossible, for a journalist to protect their source — whether they are a whistleblower, a “leaky” member of a political party or other vulnerable person. This lack of protection will mean we have fewer whistleblowers and corporate and governance malfeasance will remain hidden."


Every device connected to the internet generates metadata in a range of different ways. Commenting on the bill is complicated (to say the least) because the "data set" (what information is classified as "metadata") has not been defined and will be decided after the law has been passed. This is troubling in its own right.

Professor George Williams wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: "It states, in an unhelpful and cryptic fashion, that service providers must retain ‘information of a kind prescribed by the regulations’ or ‘documents containing information of that kind’. This leaves the real work of defining metadata to the government at a later date. Its efforts so far do not instill confidence."


The potential for abuse in relation to data retention must be questioned by even its most adamant supporter, especially when those in charge of enacting the bill fail to understand precisely what it is. This is evident in Attorney General George Brandis' now infamous interview with Sky News presenter David Spears.

As well as specific understanding, there appears to be a general technological ignorance among the highest lawmakers in the country. This may lead some to laugh, but the lack of accountability and respect for civil liberties is no laughing matter because it undermines the democratic foundations on which this society is supposedly built.

Vines told GLW: "As with all of the recent government anti-terror laws, the data retention bill is all about power and nothing about responsibilities.

“Where is the obligation to obtain a warrant or to demonstrate to an independent agency probable cause? Where is the democratic oversight and safeguards? Where are the criminal sanctions for misuse of information? Where, most importantly, is the evidence that justifies the scope of the scheme or the need for it — especially given international experience?

“We believe the police and intelligence community need to answer these questions honestly before imposing a system of mass surveillance on the Australian community."


On ABC's Media Watch, Chief Writer of The West Australian Steve Pennells responded to the question: “Do you believe our society needs whistleblowers.”

"Of course it does, any society needs whistleblowers,” he said. “In the absence of whistleblowers you’ve got to have complete faith in every level of government and policing and the justice system. You'd be naive to think that."

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