Police invoke Jill Meagher case to argue for data retention

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Call for move to technology neutral legislation.

Australian Federal Police deputy commissioner Michael Phelan has used the ongoing case of murdered ABC employee Jill Meagher to argue for data retention by telecommunications companies.

Speaking at a forum on police technology, Phelan said metadata, including cell-site data, was the “bread and butter” of law enforcement agencies seeking to tackle organised crime, but also for day-to-day investigations such as the Jill Meagher case.

Phelan said it was this sort of data, as opposed to CCTV footage, that helped police to track down Jill Meagher’s alleged murderer.

“It was actually the cell-site data, and that’s the sort of data that we are looking to protect,” Phelan said.

He added that the current Telecommunications Interception Act did not reflect the significant technology changes in play, including interactions that were one-to-many as opposed to one-to-one, as well as the move to internet protocol by telecommunications companies.

“As they move to internet protocol for all of their systems, most of the telecommunications companies couldn’t care less who you called or for how long. It will simply be a matter of how much data you use. When there’s no commercial requirement to keep the data if you’re a telecommunications company, why would you keep it?”

Phelan said that all major investigations undertaken by the Australian Federal Police require the use of metadata.

“Across Australia last year, law enforcement made half a million requests to telecommunication providers for information, and they had to pass thresholds to get to that,” he said.

Phelan added that the police force was simply seeking to maintain the status quo on how it used the data, but was concerned about “going dark” when it came to accessing critical metadata used in investigations.

“There would be no change, for example, to obtaining the content… what’s in the email, what’s in an SMS, what’s in the phone call, the actual words spoken, websites visited.

“We want a warrant for that - we don’t want that regime to change…We are also happy with as much oversight that anyone wants to give in terms of access to the metadata,” Phelan said.

Senior Sargeant Greg Davies, who is secretary of the Victorian Police Association, argued the police force was trying to keep ahead of organised crime with the use of technology in order to protect the public.

“That doesn’t mean spying on innocent citizens or compiling secret dossiers or sound and picture recordings, no one wants to see that,” he told the audience.

Davies said there was a need to ensure there were not elements within policing that abused the public’s trust on this issue. He added there were several oversight agencies managing the misuse of information.

“The commissioner for law enforcement, data security and the Privacy Commissioner along with the Independent Commission Against Corruption, the Ombudsman and the Auditor General should, I would suggest, be able to ensure that the use of technology by the police force doesn’t necessarily invade the privacy of citizens and that it’s not used outside the parameters to which is was lawfully proposed,” Davies said.

“In the end it’s in the interest of all police forces, certainly in Australia, to make sure that that sort of thing doesn’t happen.”

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