Yes, Australia's government SHOULD store comms metadata

Not because it's a good idea but because it already operates the infrastructure and processes to do it well

Parliament House Canberra by Flickr user OzMark17 used under CC Share and Share alike licence

Australia's federal government should store metadata collected by the nation's Internet service providers (ISPs), because the government already operates suitable facilities in which to do so.

ISPs have suggested that if the government persists with its metadata retention plans they would have to pass the costs of storing data on to their customers. Because that cost would be considerable they've floated the idea that if retaining metadata is so important, perhaps the government might like to do the job itself.

As it happens, the government is already doing a version of the job.

For example, Geoscience Australia (GA) operates a purpose-built data repository that in 2009 tendered for 50 petabytes of storage and has since outlined projects to help it become capable of storing ever-growing data sets.

The agency also operates a data room that offers secure, on-site, access to some of its data. As the page describing the facility explains, “To ensure the security of your research and complete confidentiality, all PCs are refreshed back to a known state at the completion of each delegation's visit.” Which sounds like a fine metadata inspection regime.

GA has been doing this kind of thing for a while and is very good at retaining and protecting data. In the mid-2000s the agency re-platformed hundreds of thousands of tapes dating from the 1960s, to ensure they'd be available for future generations.

I like the fact that GA is good at handling tape, because in the case of communications metadata there's no way the data should be online: there's just too much risk involved. That established tape-schlepping companies provide a service to take tapes off-site and into secure facilities is also welcome, as it shows there's a method by which ISPs can move data securely from their premises without traversing networks. And with any tape format worth its salt offering encryption, there's little chance that meatspace transmission poses an exotic risk.

Let's also consider that GA is not the only government agency with data handling expertise at scale. There's also the Australian National Data Service, which promotes structured storage of research data, and the government-funded Research Data Storage Infrastructure that provides storage facilities to researchers.

I could go on but it is clear Australia's government clearly has the capability – if not the raw storage capacity – to store lots of data and provide very controlled access to it.

The government has also stated an intention to reduce red tape for business. If ISPs are indeed asked to store metadata, reducing their compliance burden to popping tapes into courier bags would achieve that policy handily.

Another oft-recited pledge the government has made is to control the cost of living. Just how imposing costs on carriers meets that goal is hard to see. Stepping in with the facilities required to store metadata would help to make that pledge more plausible.

That such facilities already exist and have been tested is also too good an opportunity to waste: why should the private sector be asked to replicate expertise and facilities accrued at taxpayer expense?

I'm not suggesting that GA and other agencies should be pressed into service as repositories of metadata tomorrow. Before a single bit of ISP-sourced data about any of us reaches a single magneto-resistant atom we need legislation to determine who gets to see the data, under what circumstances and with what kind of oversight and disclosure.

The nice thing about such regimes is that, most of the time, they are subject to public scrutiny. As are government agencies, which are required to report on their activities annually. So there's a chance we'd get to see how often metadata is accessed. If it can be done in a secure room, perhaps reports could tell us how often it is used.

On grounds of existing expertise and facilities, cost and transparency, it's right that if Australia must retain metadata, the government, and not ISPs, should do the job. ®

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