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Oz Attorney-General wants ISPs to hold data for 2 years

Leaked minutes show cavalier attitude to privacy

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Australia’s descent into internet madness continues apace with the leak of confidential minutes suggesting that that country’s law enforcement agencies have no understanding of either the technology behind the web, the ethics behind a functioning democracy – or both.

If such leaks are to be believed, the Office of the Australian Attorney-General wants ISPs to hold logs of all emails and browsing history for two years – for now – with a possible extension to the above to come. It would like IP address linked to a personal identifier, such as a passport.

The scale of the data collection involved – and therefore also the potential for harm should it go astray - is enormous, and the entire enterprise is to be entrusted to ISPs. The government want the industry to pay for the massive upheavals in systems storage and structure such an approach would require, and they do not want details of their deliberations shared with the public – presumably on the grounds that the public would not understand the important issues involved.

All this, according to insiders, is in order to solve a problem which affects a handful of cases at any given time.

Full details are available in an exposé put together by ZDNet Australia, reporting on a meeting that took place in March between law enforcement agencies, officials from the Attorney-General’s Office and leading Australian telecomms companies, including Telstra, Optus, iiNet, Internode, Nextgen and the Comms Alliance.

The meeting was intended to be "confidential". Accompanying the briefing note was a warning: "This document is provided in-confidence to telecommunications industry participants for consultation purposes and is not for further distribution outside your organisation."

The inevitable exposure of government thinking in this matter has been followed by a lot of fast back-pedalling, but the general thrust appears to be clear.

First off, the proposals are about tracking browsing history. Denials that this was the case by the Attorney-General were described by one industry insider as "a little bit cute", but inaccurate. According to one industry source close to the consultations: "The major problem here, and as it was explained, [is] that all information in the handouts [suggested] that any information which is logged must be retained. Therefore any ... proxy logs would fall under this category."

Since proxy logs record each individual URL an internet user visits, the claim that browsing history is not going to be required is clearly misleading.

Another leak from the meeting suggested that Australia’s law enforcers would like ISPs to hold onto a large amount of "associated personal information", including passport number. One insider responded: "Why the hell an ISP would ask anybody for a passport number is beyond me."

The Attorney-General appears to be equally cavalier on questions of security. A database of browsing history, allied to personal information such as passport number, as well as being costly to run, is dynamite in the wrong hands. ISPs suggested tentatively that if such a database must be created, it should be handed over to the government for safe-keeping.

No way. That, of course, would cost money – and therefore, in the interests of national security, the government would far rather take risks with personal security than take on responsibility for the monster it is in the process of creating. As far as officialdom was concerned, it should pay for the incremental costs of any trawl through the data – likely to be trivial – while ISPs and end-users should pick up the infrastructure costs.

Along the way, ISPs questioned the need for such a system, claiming that the figures given by the government in justification suggested that this was a solution in search of a problem. They also pointed out that, as the law stood, it would be unlawful for them to collect data on this scale.

To each and every question, insider sources have suggested the Attorney-General’s Office either had no answer or an evasion. This project, if it goes ahead, does not appear to answer any real security needs. However, law enforcement agencies like the idea of it "just in case".

It will cost Australians dear, and the financial cost will be just the start. No one, least of all the government, has even begun to count the cost to civil liberties. ®

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