Q. What does meta-data retention, de-anonymising the Census, de-funding of the OAIC & delaying the OGP have in common?
A. They all bear directly on the privacy rights of Australians and they all happened at the same time.
This blog post explores the possibility of links between the de-funding of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, the introduction of meta-data retention, the de-anonymising of the Australian Census and the long delay in Australia joining the Open Government Partnership.
Like most Australians, when the government announced it was bringing in legislation to collect seemingly harmless ‘meta-data’ on every one of us and require ISP’s and phone companies to store it for two years to fight terrorism and child pornography I was not perturbed. When my geek friends and journalists wrote that this was the thin edge of the wedge, that soon any number of agencies would be given access to this data for their own use, I thought they were being overly cynical.
When Geordie Guy revealed that the list of agencies seeking warrantless access to meta-data was not limited to ASIO and other agencies fighting terrorism and organised crime but included local councils chasing litter bugs I began to wonder if perhaps the geeks were right? At that point I saw no reason to change how I used my devices, I didn’t realise that my ISP meta-data could be connected with the enormous cache of data collected every day by Google to identify my browsing history. I trusted my government.
Then things began to change. I recently began improving my online privacy and security. I began learning about meta-data and how it can be linked to data collected by sources independent of government such as Google. I read up on what data is collected and realised that every person I contact or who contacts me whether by phone or email is recorded.
Check out some of the data now collected on every Australian
A customer’s voicemail communication session is bounded from authentication and deauthentication for the service. That is, when a customer logs in to their voicemail account and when that customer logs out of their account.
Additionally, each voicemail message received is an individual communication. Providers of voicemail services will be required to keep records about each message.
In applying the data set to a session, the types of information to be retained include: o subscriber information, such as the name, address and contact details of the customer
o source of a communication, such as the phone number of the caller
o destination of a communication, such as the phone number of the receiver
o the date, time and duration of a communication.
This category is also inclusive of a customer’s connection to a relevant service, and
o location of equipment or line used in connection with the communication, if known. The location records are limited to the location of a device at the start and end of a communication. Each email, either sent or received, is also a discrete communication. Information relating to each email sent or received should also be retained, including:
o identifier for the sender and recipient of the e-mail who the email was sent to and received from o the date and time the email was sent/received
The data retention obligations relate to information about a communication—not the content or substance of a communication (such as the subject or the body of an email). 24
Providers are required to retain information about emails, including identifiers of all potential recipients of an email that a provider’s subscriber has attempted to send or forward: o This includes destinations using the Carbon Copy (CC) and Blind Carbon Copy (BCC) functions, as well as emails that are unsuccessful. See more (from page 23)
I thought about this being used to chase people not just for terrorism or other major crimes but for suspected infringements of any sort and I realised Australians are the victim of a bait and switch. We were told our every move and contact needs to be made available to government to protect us from terrorism and instead we find organisations we don’t even consider to be law enforcement agencies have been given access to our location and personal networks on the flimsiest of pretexts and without any kind of warrant.
But there’s a lot more to my concern than my newfound research on the realities of meta-data. Being involved in consultations to draft Australia’s first National Action Plan for Open Government raised more concerns than solutions in my mind. Intended to put in place inquiries, legislation, agencies and programs to ensure government transparency and accountability, rather than coming away with a greater trust of government, I walked away from the drafting event concluding that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had used the process to intimidate civil society and warn us off asking questions.
The Department went so far as to criticise journalists and civil society activists simply for making Freedom of Information requests about the Open Government Process. Firstly it must be noted that there is a reason media and civil society have filed multiple FOI requests regarding the OGP. That is because the Open Government Partnership was delayed for several years with no information forthcoming from government about why this was the case. Other developed nations are on their second or third two-year plan, while Australia has not even published our first. Most people who have filed requests trying to find out what on earth was going on with Australia’s bid to join the Open Government Partnership were told that much of this information formed part of the deliberative process and was therefore protected from a public right to know.
Think about this for a minute. The Open Government Partnership is about opening government to public scrutiny and transparency and the reason the government has delayed it for several years without explanation is considered by the government to be something the public has no right to know. After years of silence and delay the government finally signed the intention to join last November (just weeks after mandatory data-retention went live, incidentally) which launched Australia into the six month ‘consultation’ required in order to ‘co-create’ the National Action Plan.
It was in the lead up to the live drafting of Australia’s first National Action Plan that the government chose to lambast civil society for having the temerity to ask questions about why the Open Government Partnership had been delayed for years and why it was that of the available five ‘Gand Challenges‘ the government could choose to focus on in our first ever National Action Plan for Open Government, DMP&C chose to exclude ‘Improving Government Integrity’.
Finding out through the Canberra grapevine on the eve of the consultation that I personally had been cited by government as one of a number of civil society activists who were ‘putting the OGP process at risk’ struck me as covert intimidation but it also raises important questions. Specifically: why is it that filing Freedom of Information requests on the Open Government Partnership such a threat ?
To underline the government’s hostility and sensitivity to whatever the OGP documents are hiding, Martin Parkinson (described as the nation’s top public servant and potentially responsible for the to date unattributed comments criticising civil society) went on the record on the very day the National Action Plan was drafted with an article in the Canberra Times calling for FOI to be rolled back.
Putting aside what is my considerable indignation as an impoverished single mother attending a government consultation and being faced with information that I had been targeted for criticism by a senior public servant, the criticism needs to be evaluated in light of its strategic value. Apart from giving Martin Parkinson a platform for his criticisms of media FOI requests, Australian media has completely ignored the Open Government Partnership – the biggest policy event in Australia’s history of transparency and accountability. One has to wonder why? What is the big secret? Some questions need to be asked on behalf of all Australians.
Having no idea what the agency does, most people took no notice when the Abbott government introduced legislation to abolish the OAIC. For those out of the loop, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner is an independent agency that is intended to protect the rights of Australians to access information (via FOI) and protect our right to privacy. The OAIC plays a statutory role in evaluating the privacy protections put in place by so called ‘integrating authorities‘. That is, agencies that oversee the implementation of of linked data sets- the kind of process now being applied to the Australian Census.
Does it not seem odd to people that at a time when Australia introduced the biggest changes to privacy for everyday Australians in de-anonymising the Census and retaining our every online action through meta-data, that the agency whose role it is to protect our interests and give independent advice was brutally de-funded and left with the Information Commissioner working from de-funded the agency home? Does this not seem a bit odd to people?
Not only that, but when the government could not get it’s legislation to totally abolish the OAIC through parliament it offered it a lifeline at MYEFO but not to protect the privacy of you and your fellow Australians. The extra funding was to implement the system that underpins the welfare cuts announced by the Liberal Party which is intended to track so called ‘welfare cheats’.
So not only was our privacy/FOI agency gutted while data retention was brought in and our Census was de-anonymised but the OAIC has been put to work tracking ‘welfare cheats’ so the government could lay claim fiscal responsibility during the election campaign.
Think about it, the agency meant to protect our privacy was all but abolished at the same time as the Census was de-anonymised and retention of our meta-data was brought in. On the very day Australia’s first National Action Plan for Open Government was publicly drafted, the Head of the Department running the consultation called for a winding back of the public’s right to access deliberative documents.
Throughout this period the media has been largely missing in action so I call upon them now to fill in the blanks. Why was the OAIC defunded during the biggest changes to privacy ever undertaken by the Australian government? Why is the government so sensitive about the Open Government Partnership? What is it hiding? Given that both the retention of meta-data and de-anonymising the Census were brought in only after the Abbott government de-funded the OAIC, how can Australians trust that either of these changes is in the interest of the public?