Plibersek data retention support “shameful”: Ludlam



news Greens Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam has labelled the revelation this week of relatively unqualified support for data retention and mass surveillance by Tanya Plibersek as “shameful”, accusing the Deputy Labor Leader of being naive or manipulative in public statements made on the issue.

Over last weekend, Plibersek gave an interview to Sky News in which the Labor MP issued relatively unqualified support for increased data retention and surveillance powers by Australia’s law enforcement and intelligence communities. The Guardian, which has an extensive article on the MP’s views, wrote:

“Plibersek suggested she was comfortable in-principle with telecommunications companies collecting metadata and storing it for a mandatory retention period. She said the community had a right to privacy, and to expectations of living in an open and democratic society – but her view was government needed to make it as “easy as we can” for intelligence agencies to protect against established and emerging threats.”

The news comes as a move by the Greens to set up a Senate inquiry into the potential reform of Australia’s surveillance laws appears to have opened a giant Pandora’s Box of debate about the issue, with Australian law enforcement agencies using the process to demand massively increased electronic surveillance rights, including data retention of users’ communications.

Labor and the Coalition have previously broadly supported increased powers in this area for Australian authorities. However, the Australian public has consistently demonstrated it is concerned about the issue. A parliamentary inquiry last year dealing with the data retention issue was deluged with dissent from all sides of the political spectrum, while a poll taken last month by Essential Media showed 80 percent of Australians disapprove of the Government being able to access Australians’ phone and Internet records without a warrant.

The Greens have taken a strong stance against the need for unfettered surveillance of Australians by law enforcement agencies. In an opinion piece published by The Guardian yesterday (we recommend you click here for the full article), Ludlam accused Plibersek of ‘quietly caving in’ on the issue.

Ludlam highlighted the case of German Green party politician Malte Spitz, who in 2009 subpoenaed six months worth of ‘metadata’ from his telecommunications provider, mashing them up with Google Maps to provide a giant time map of Spitz’s every activity. It is this kind of metadata (content relating to telecommunications such as call records but not the actual content of telecommunications) that Plibersek was primarily discussing.

“Now imagine all of us mapped into this fine-grained simulacrum of social life on an industrial planet, all our social interactions through many degrees of separation, swarming around like microchipped pets under a gargantuan microscope, said Ludlam. “Anyone who downplays the importance of assembling billions of these metadata “envelopes” either doesn’t understand the technology, or hopes to impede your understanding. We expect it from [Attorney-General George] Brandis. We could have done without it from what remains of the Labor party.”

Digital rights political party the Pirate Party also condemned Plibersek’s comments.

“Ms Plibersek restated the artificial distinction between “data” and “metadata,” likening the former to the contents of a letter and the latter to the envelope. Pirate Party Australia is critical of this analogy, and does not accept or condone the mandatory retention or use of metadata, on the grounds that it is a gross invasion of privacy,” the Party wrote.

“The idea that metadata is equivalent to reading the address on an envelope is misleading. A lot of information about us can be gathered by looking at what websites we visit, searches we make, and who we communicate with. Complex webs of relationships, interests, daily routines, and political and religious affiliations can be built solely using metadata,” said Fletcher Boyd, Pirate Party candidate for the Western Australian Senate Election this Saturday. “It can be far more valuable than the content itself, and this makes it ultimately more dangerous.”

The Pirate Party pointed out that the Electronic Frontier Foundation had pointed out the nature of metadata and just how much it can reveal.

Examples include: “They know you rang a phone sex service at 2:24 am and spoke for 18 minutes. But they don’t know what you talked about,” “They know you called the suicide prevention hotline from the Golden Gate Bridge. But the topic of the call remains a secret,” and “They know you spoke with an HIV testing service, then your doctor, then your health insurance company in the same hour. But they don’t know what was discussed”.

The Pirate Party Australia recently raised concerns that the Attorney-General’s Department was acting as a “lobbyist” for law enforcement and intelligence agencies3. In its submission to the Comprehensive revision of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979, the Pirate Party suggested that AGD was caught in a form of regulatory capture, advocating on behalf of the intelligence and police organisations it is meant to regulate. The AGD also submitted to the inquiry, arguing in support of greater interception and access powers for those organisations.

“Mass, indiscriminate surveillance is not acceptable in a free and democratic society. It amounts to an invasion of privacy giving information that spy agencies and law enforcement can peruse and evaluate, currently without the restrictions of a warrant, peering into the private lives of ordinary citizens with lax oversight. This is not acceptable,” Boyd said. “It is disappointing that the two largest political parties are acting as cheer squads for the surveillance state.”

The Pirate Party said it was firmly committed to opposing the warrantless monitoring of Internet use of the general public and believed that anti-terrorism practices should emphasise greater use of informants and targeted infiltration.

I don’t personally believe Plibersek made these comments in order to play down the importance of the electronic surveillance debate. I just believe the MP is naive about the importance of the debate and has spent more time being briefed by intelligence agencies than the digital rights community (and the Australian public, for that matter) about widespread concerns about electronic surveillance and data retention in Australia. It’s a common problem with politicians, who are time-poor and don’t have time to stay up to date on every issue.

Image credit: RubyGoes, Creative Commons


  1. C’on, Labor were the FIRST party to try bring this in, it is naive to think they wont back the Coalition in trying to get this power trippin privacy invading BS through

  2. I kinda think the genie is out of the bottle on this one now days. When even Target can data mine the fact that someone pregnant before her father does (, the government needs similar capability just to keep up.

    However, Target does that mining their own data. The government should require judicial clearance first, as the data they use is not theirs. The reason this is an issue for everyone is that the Gov take the stance that “everyone is guilty until proven innocent” using the system they want in place.

    I don’t think anyone would have a problem with it at all if the Gov needed to get a warrant before being given access to the data, and only for a specific purpose/reason.

  3. Let them retain all the data they want, including all the encrypted cake recipes and shopping lists. As Winston Churchill said: “You can give the enemy all the information he wants. What you cannot give him is the ability to use it.”

    But schadenfreude aside, I can see a logical reason for detention that has everything to do with national security. I refer to steganography; the art and the science of hiding messages.

    Every image uploaded to the Internet becomes a potential subversive’s bulletin-board into which text and other images can be embedded in a manner which renders them invisible to the human eye. Those text-filled spam email also fall into this category.

    Unlike, say, an encrypted email which by the very visible encryption makes it obvious that you’ve ‘got’ something, enabling you to ‘hit’ it with all your deciphering power, you can stare all day at an image and never get the slightest hint that it has a sinister purpose.

    Text and images concealed by steganography can only be detected by mathematical and statistical means. While that will certainly gladden the hearts of prospective students of these sciences one is immediately confronted by two daunting propositions.

    First, what level of ‘false positives’ is acceptable. The over-zealous will proclaim “Oh, zero level. I want to be one-hundred-percent certain of catching anything naughty.”

    Really? I’m sure they’ll find fascinating reading all those deciphered cake recipes and shopping lists, having overcome any squeamishness about recipes being copyrighted intellectual material and shopping lists could be covered by privacy legislation. Not every client of adult stores is necessarily candid about their purchases.

    It’s the second proposition that has implications for data retention. Scanning every image on the Internet – and I stress EVERY image – even if we could agree on an acceptable level of false positives would mean we’d still be waiting for a clue of the so-called ‘9/11’ attacks. What would be invaluable would be auxiliary information to complement a suspicious find.

    Information such as who uploaded an image, who subsequently accessed that image, and where do both those Internet-users live. Great sensitivity would still be needed in interpreting any conclusions drawn but it might give the authorities some means of avoiding misleading trails.

    But, as we have seen, gathering information about Internet users and their activities runs into formidable barriers. No wonder there is lament about the dangerously-low level of interest in the mathematical sciences. It won’t be guns and uniforms we need in any future conflict, despite the best efforts of the arms manufacturers. But, sadly, it’s guns and uniforms that the public understands.

  4. The idea that my phone can silently take photos & transmit them with a GPS time & location is pretty scary. I don’t think you can just say that MP’s are time poor. They’re elected to represent us & not the government departments.

  5. We should throw down a gauntlet to every MP who is pro-metadata-retention.

    Challenge them to allow the public release of their personal metadata for the period they are judging as appropriate for retention.

    I wonder if any interesting conclusions could be drawn about their behaviour…?

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