The lower house of the federal parliament passed new laws on Thursday (metadata retention laws) that in theory will allow government agencies to spy more on the Australian public. From what I can see the new laws seem to do little and achieve even less yet will cost a lot. The politicians and mainstream media have had their say on the issue but there are very few people talking on behalf of the public and defending our rights.
The new laws simply mean that telecommunications companies will now have to keep our telephone and internet records for 2 years. Most companies already keep the records for a certain period which I would guess to be at least 6 months to a year. So not a great deal changes anyhow.
The only real question that needs to be answered as far as I am concerned is: Will Australian metadata retention go down in history as one of the dumbest ideas passed into law by any government anywhere? Only time will tell.
Exactly how the new laws will work and what the real benefits will be no one seems to know. On Thursday night, the same day as the laws were passed in the lower house, the Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull was on the ABC show Lateline advising journalists on ways around the new laws.
Using old metadata to catch criminals is not common and is almost outdated as there are messaging services such as Wickr that encrypt messages and leave no metadata. So as Lateline host Tony Jones said to Malcolm Turnbull on Thursday:
“If you’re a smart leaker, if you’re a smart coup plotter, if you’re a smart journalist, you’re going to be using” Wickr etc
And Mr Turnbull responded: “If you were a smart journalist – and I said this in the House today; I didn’t say if you were a smart journalist, but I said if you’re a journalist and you are dealing with confidential sources, you – you, the journalist, have an obligation to protect your sources and using encrypted messaging applications and taking care that you don’t leave an electronic trail is very important.” (Click here to read more or watch the interview)
So if there are simple ways around leaving a metadata trail then how useful will the new laws be?
Real cost unknown
One of the first things governments are meant to do is a costs-benefits analysis when in the planning stages of any new laws or expenditure. The government has clearly not done this as Malcolm Turnbull’s admission that people can circumvent the new laws by using encrypting services such as Wickr shows. The benefits of the new laws will be minimal if anything at all.
The costs on the other hand could be anything and are still unknown.
The SMH reported on Monday (16-3-15): “Consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, which was commissioned late last year to come up with a cost estimate, said the scheme would cost anywhere between $188.8 million and $319.1 million just to set up.”
If the best cost estimate is up to “$319.1 million just to set up” with no ongoing cost estimate then the laws should never have been passed in the lower house. What is the real cost going to be? $1 billion or $2 billion?
It is us the public who will ultimately pay for it whether that be through higher taxes or a higher internet access fee. We are entitled to know what sort of value we are getting for our money with a proper costs/benefit analysis. Not some stupid roll of the dice hoping its value for money.
Metadata has been used to catch criminals in the past
South Australia’s assistant police commissioner has been quoted as saying: “Police are struggling to cope with and make good use of the vast reservoirs of metadata collected during investigations” (Click here to read more)
While police have on occasions used metadata (phone records and internet records) to catch criminals in the past the new laws are highly unlikely to help them catch a greater percentage of criminals in the future. They only thing that I can see happening is more business for sites such as Wickr.
The Liberals and Labor both support the metadata laws. Why?
Both the Liberal government and Labor opposition are supporting the laws which means they will pass the Senate. Given all the evidence points to the fact that the new laws will have very little impact on catching criminals if any then why pass the laws? What is their motivation?
The Labor Party held out from supporting the laws until the Government put in better protection for journalists. (Click here to read more) Another time waster as all that will happen is that a corrupt judge somewhere will decide whether or not the police can see the metadata of the journalist. The journalist’s and the public’s interests will be represented in court by a lawyer appointed by the Prime Minister as Malcolm Turnbull has stated in the Lateline interview referred to above.
So what happens in a Watergate scenario where the police are investigating a leak from the government regarding corruption by the Prime Minister? I bet the lawyer picked by the Prime Minister will not be trying too hard to stop the police from finding the leak.
Is the government just passing the laws to try to make it look like they are doing something and are the Labor Party doing the same by supporting the laws? If that’s the case it has backfired as they both look stupid to many voters.
Is the government trying to intimidate whistleblowers in the government to shut their mouths? Whatever the real story is, the whole situation is a scandal and a waste of taxpayer’s money and the Liberal Party government and Labor Party opposition are lying to the Australian public.
If the Liberals and Labor Party really want to do something, then employ more police
The government could probably employ anywhere between 500 to 1000 new federal police officers for the same cost as implementing the metadata retention laws. A lot more crime would be stopped by doing that than spending it on metadata.
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