news The nation’s biggest telco Telstra has published an extremely brief four page “Transparency Report” detailing a small amount of information about its interactions with law enforcement agencies, including the fact that it responded to over 40,000 requests for information over the six months to the end of 2013 alone.
In a post on the company’s Exchange blog, Telstra chief risk officer Kate Hughes claimed that Telstra’s Transparency Report was “the first of its kind in Australia”, despite the fact that it has become for technology companies such as Google to publish statistics on their interactions with law enforcement authorities, including in Australia. The report is available to download here in PDF format.
“The aim of the report is to give our customers more information about our legal obligations as a telecommunications carrier,” wrote Hughes. “We are bound by Australian privacy law which protects the personal information of our customers. We are also required, like all telecommunications companies that provide services in Australia, to assist Australian national security and law enforcement agencies. This assistance may involve disclosing customer information.”
“This assistance is provided for specific reasons, such as enforcing criminal law, protecting public revenue and safeguarding national security. We also provide assistance to emergency services agencies in response to life threatening situations.”
“Our Transparency Report covers the six months up to 31 December 2013. During this time we received approximately 40,000 requests for customer information from Australian agencies. The requests came from law enforcement, emergency services and regulatory agencies. This figure does not include national security related requests. We only disclose customer information in accordance with the law. We assess any request for information we receive from government agencies to make sure it complies with the law.”
However, the report published by Telstra appears to include almost no information that would be of use by consumers in achieving transparency about the company’s interactions with law enforcement organisations.
It contains only one small table of data, shown below, which details the fact that over the six months to the end of 2013, Telstra provided customer information, carriage service records and pre-warrant checks some 36,053 times; information in life-threatening situations and with respect to triple zero emergency calls 2,871 times; with respect to court orders 270 times, and with respect to warrants for interception or access to stored communications some 1,450 times.
Telstra did not provide information relating to its interaction with national security agencies, as Telstra believes it is prohibited from doing so under the law, and the rest of its document merely consists of generic background information on when and why Telstra provides information to law enforcement agencies.
It is also unclear whether Telstra’s data is actually accurate. Under Australia’s Telecommunications (Interception and Access Act), certain Australian Government departments and agencies — especially those in the law enforcement field — are able to access Australians’ telecommunications data. In the 2012 financial year, such agencies made close to 300,000 requests for telecommunications data, without a warrant, according to government data. Given Telstra’s position as Australia’s largest telco by far, it would be expected that a large portion of those 300,000 requests would relate to the telco. However, the numbers disclosed by Telstra were significantly less.
The news comes just weeks after a new poll conducted by Essential Media has recentlyshown that 80 percent of Australians disapprove of the Government being able to access Australians’ phone and Internet records without a warrant, in research which was already being hailed as “vindication” for campaigns against government intrusion into private residents’ telecommunications.
The long-running issue — as well as associated issues such as the revelations of government spying on many fronts by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden — led the Greens to successfully move a motion in the Senate in December last year to establish a formal inquiry into Internet surveillance, through a review that will take place into the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act.
The results released in mid-February of a new poll revealed that Australians are deeply concerned about the issue. The poll was conducted by Essential Media with data provided by Your Source. It was conducted online from 14 to 17 February this year and was based on just over 1,000 respondents. The full results are available online in PDF format.
One of the questions asked in the poll was: “Do you approve or disapprove of the Australian Government being able to access your phone and Internet records without a warrant.” The results showed that 80 percent of respondents disapproved of the practice, with 56 percent strongly disapproving. Only 16 percent approved and only 4 percent strongly approved.
“Transparency”? Yeah. I don’t quite think Telstra is there yet. This report is little more than a brochure advising Australians how their privacy is being systematically violated, and excusing Telstra from any role it has in the matter. I think the telco can do better. As in, it might publish an actual “report” on the issue, which actually had some “transparency”. Is that too much to ask, from a telco which supposedly safeguards the majority of Australian telecommunications?