Senate committee slams AGs for hindering data retention inquiry

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Senate committee slams AGs for hindering data retention inquiry

Attorney General's Department leaves Senate committee 'flying blind'.

A Senate committee has recommended Australia's proposed data retention scheme only be considered if it only collected metadata, avoided capture of browser histories and contained rigorous privacy controls and oversight.

The committee was scathing of the Federal Government's lack of information into the scheme. It described efforts by the Attorney General's Department to assist with the report both "unsatisfactory" and "concerning".

A data retention scheme would require telecommunications providers to proactively store user data to boost law enforcement and intelligence efforts. The proposed scheme sparked outrage among privacy groups and online communities over the last four years.

Federal Attorney General Mark Dreyfus said the proposed scheme would not be pursued at present, a claim Greens Senator Scott Ludlam described as predictable.

"This has been set to rest and neutralised as an election issue which is precisely what (Communications) Minister Conroy did on an earlier form of the internet filter," Ludlam said.

"... post election this proposal will be back, I have absolutely no doubt about this."

Senator John Faulkner tabled the committee's report in parliament today. He said both it and wider public discussion were "significantly impaired" by the absence of detail into the plans by the Attorney General's office.

The committee recommended any decision to implement a data retention scheme be left to parliament.

Faulkner said it first should address privacy concerns.

"No such regime should be enacted, unless privacy and civil liberty concerns can be addressed and an exposure draft be given to committee."

Faulkner highlighted three of the committee's 43 recommendations contained in its report (pdf).

It recommended the Telecommunications Interception and Access Act be "comprehensively revised"  in lieu of any data retention scheme, to include an interception regime that with significant oversight that is technology-neutral.

Law enforcement and intelligence agencies would only be able intercept specific data sets when faced with the need to tap new technologies and combat "counter-security".

The scheme itself would collect only metadata and explicitly exclude the content of communications and internet browsing data.

The Australian public were understandably on edge about a data retention scheme following the PRISM leaks by former US defence contractor Edward Snowden, Faulkner said.

"We must ensure that none of our citizens are surprised if and when law enforcement and intelligence use their legislative powers."

Senator David Johnston said the terms of reference was "extraordinarily wide" and reiterated that the committee faced a lack of data from the Attorney General's Department.

"The lack of draft legislation and emergence of technology in terms of collection of data and analysis of data is virtually having a tiger by the tail. The lack of draft legislation or detail of potential reforms was very difficult for this committee to deal with."

He said former Attorney General Nicola Roxon and her department "did not provide a great deal of assistance" - meaning the committee was "flying blind" and was "guessing where the technology was going to lead".

Johnston said information from the Attorney General's department had to be drawn from witnesses representing the agency.

"I think that is unsatisfactory and of concern."

Copyright © SC Magazine, Australia

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