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'Metadatagate' fails to bring down Oz pollie

Sysadmins in the news after time stamps become key to political scandal

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Time stamps in Adobe Acrobat and Microsoft Word documents briefly became the centre of Australia's political agenda today, after seemingly dodgy dates in a press release were said to point to a conspiracy.

To understand the sudden political import of metadata, you need to know that Australia currently has a minority government and that that government won itself an extra vote by giving opposition member of parliament Peter Slipper the job of speaker. That extra vote brought with it increased stability for the government.

Several months later, Slipper was forced to stand down after an aide accused him of sexual harassment. The aide was encouraged to pursue the case – and assisted to do so - by the opposition's candidate challenging Slipper for his seat.

Last week, a judge threw the case out, claiming it was only ever brought for political gain. The judge's remarks about the plaintiff were stinging and will almost certainly mean the lawyer who ran the case will face an inquiry into his professional conduct.

That was big news given that not very many minutes after news of the case broke, opposition leader Tony Abbott emitted a press release about the case. That press release was later found to have a time stamp of the previous night, leading many to speculate Abbott's office was aware of the case and may even have had a hand in planning it to destabilise the government. With the case since thrown out, involvement in its preparation would have been political dynamite.

Abbott quickly insisted a technology problem was responsible for the time stamp and that his office knew nuh-think about the case.

Few were satisfied with that explanation, because Abbott has admitted he's “not a tech-head” and has also said he had no "specific" knowledge of the case before hearing about it on the news. The vagueness of the word specific, when added to the time stamp, left many wondering if a smoking gun linking Abbott to the dodgy case had been found.

All of which probably had Australia's real tech heads – or those conversant with metadata in Adobe and Microsoft documents, or network time protocols - excited that their moment in the sun had arrived, at least in terms of being able to offer insight into politics.

Sadly, the Department of Parliamentary Services has dashed their hopes and dreams, issuing a statement this afternoon in which it 'fesses up to a mess that failed to apply Australia's time zone to the UTC time on which its servers rely. The time stamp on the press release was therefore correct, so far as the computers in Australia's parliament knew, even if it did not reflect local time.

Australia's national broadcaster, the ABC, has even said it has seen other documents with the same problem.

All of which leaves Abbott less vulnerable, antipodean sysadmins less likely to sparkle around the table at dinner parties and sysadmins inside Parliament House with a lot to do before Christmas. ®

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