news Global Internet networks expert Geoff Huston this week said Australia was at risk of being positioned as the “Global Village Idiot” courtesy of the Data Retention legislation passed by the “bureaucrats” in the Government, alleging that none of the organisations in support of the policy actually understand technology.
Huston is currently Chief Scientist at the Asia Pacific Network Information Centre, where he is regarded as one of the world’s global authorities on the phenomenon of IPv4 address exhaustion, but he has also held a variety of other important roles in the history of the development of the Internet in Australia.
From 1995 to 2005, Huston was the Chief Internet Scientist at Telstra, where he helped develop the big T’s Internet offerings. Before that, he was one of the main driving forces helping to construct AARNet — the Internet network between Australia’s universities which represented one of the first actual IP-based networks with access to the Internet in Australia.
On his Potaroo blog this month (click here for the full article), Huston slammed the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2015, which passed in late March this year after a protracted debate which saw the bill amended a number of times at the behest of the Australian Labor Party and substantial amendments by the Greens and a number of crossbench Senators rejected by both major parties.
The bill formally enshrines the collection of Australian telecommunications data including details of telephone calls, email and some Internet data into law, although a number of Australia’s broadband providers are still attempting to implement its detailed provisions.
On his blog, Huston wrote that with the previous Internet filter legislation pushed by the previous Labor Government, he had believed that “if the Internet represented a new Global Village then Australia was trying very hard to position itself as the Global Village Idiot.”
“And the current situation with Australia’s new Data Retention laws may well support a case for reviving that sentiment,” Huston wrote. “Between the various government agencies who pressed for this legislation, the lawyers who drafted the legislation, the politicians who advocated its adoption and the bureaucrats who are overseeing its implementation, then as far as I can tell none of them get it.”
“They just don’t understand the Internet and how it works, and they are acting on a somewhat misguided assumption that the Internet is nothing more than the telephone network for computers. And nothing could be further from the truth.”
Chief amongst Huston’s complaints regarding the legislation is what he said was its conflation of IP addresses with old-style analogue telephone numbers. The network expert noted the complexity of modern IP-based networks, and the uselessness of treating IP addresses as identification units.
“But the Australian Data Retention Laws say something has to be stored, and the bureaucrats running the Attorney General’s Office of Data Retention say something has to be stored, and the industry players are trying to understand what exactly should be stored, because in shared address-based networks there is nothing around that meets the intended requirements of this law.”
I would encourage you to read Huston’s full argument before commenting on this article. He goes into quite a bit of technical detail which informed readers will find useful to take in.
I partially agree with Huston’s comments about data retention.
On the one hand, clearly he is right — IP addresses are not the universally useful identifiers that old-style telephone numbers are. Law enforcement agencies will find it very difficult in some cases to tie individuals to these kind of “ephemeral shared tokens”, as Huston puts it. The Internet is a complex place, and not always easily simplified down. I also agree with Huston’s point regarding broadband providers being technically able to store details of your web browsing history.
However, I would also note that often, for law enforcement purposes, the Internet can be much more simple than Huston posits. It is very easy, for example, for law enforcement agencies to tie an IP address to a certain mobile phone browsing a cell tower at any given point, and IP addresses on home broadband routers often don’t change for months. Huston lives in a world of complex IP addresses — but the practice in reality of how those addresses are used can often be quite simple, even archaic.
Law enforcement organisations are very easily able to mine telecommunications data for useful outcomes — in fact, these days they depend upon it. This may get more difficult as time goes on, but I suspect this kind of data will always be useful in solving and preventing crime to some degree.
I do agree, however, with Huston’s overarching point. Often the parties to this kind of technology-related legislation don’t understand the legislation they are enacting. That much has been very clear throughout the data retention debate, and I personally believe it has resulted in a huge overreach — a policy which is disproportionate to law enforcement needs, and does not take into account significant privacy concerns. Data retention is, to some degree, needed to ensure positive law enforcement outcomes. But it should be targeted and proportionate. The current policy is not.