Australia’s Data Retention D-Day Is Here

Hide yo kids, hide yo Wi-Fi: Australia’s data retention laws kick in today.

For those who have been left massively out of the loop, data retention is a system that will see telcos and ISPs retain metadata on their customers for two years. The data would then be used by law enforcement agencies to catch bad guys and home-grown terror threats.

There are a few different positions on metadata retention. You can be all for the police collecting your meaningless metadata if it means they’ll catch a few crims, or you’re annoyed that your private communication history is being gathered up for little to no benefit.

Politicians have a few different was of looking at it too: either you’re on #TeamAustralia and don’t mind having your data snooped on by the cops or you should be outraged at the massive breach of privacy being forced upon the Australian people.

Either way, it’s happening. Right now.

Spooks will try and tell you that metadata never contains any identifying information about the contents of calls, emails, messages or traffic sent over web connections. It just stores the info on how long you’ve been on a particular site, or a particular call, or when you sent a particular message and who to. Privacy advocates believe that metadata actually fingers a user for more than just that.

Philip Branch from Swinburne University writes on the implications of metadata collection and what it means for the privacy of users:

Even before smartphones and the internet, metadata from the mobile phone system was surprisingly rich. Metadata could provide information as to whether the call was forwarded and where it was forwarded to, whether or not it was answered, and so on.

Such information is invaluable in building up a model of relationships. But not only did the phone network provide information about the participants to a call, it could also provide approximate information about where the call was made.

Since mobile phones are connected to the network via nearby base stations usually located only a few kilometres away, metadata reporting which basestation the handset is attached to gives location information accurate to a few kilometres.

Also, since the phone is connected to a basestation whenever it is switched on, the phone can provide continuous location information regardless as to whether or not calls are made.

Mobile internet has been both a blessing and a curse for investigators. Smartphones are used for many more purposes than voice only telephones.

Generally, people use a smartphone much more than they used older types of telephones. Consequently, many new forms of metadata have become available. Email addresses, websites visited, files downloaded all present many new opportunities for investigators to gather metadata.

Not only is material downloaded, but a considerable amount of material is also uploaded.

Pictures, videos, social media updates all provide metadata that could be of use in an investigation. For example, images captured on a smartphone will, unless steps are taken to remove it, contain GPS location information accurate to within a few metres.

Other metadata that might be of interest includes when the image was created, who created it and the device it was created on. Metadata might even be added, perhaps unwittingly, when people tag images with comments.

If you want to get around metadata retention (because that’s totally a thing you can do), get into our guide on VPNs as a starting point.