news The Federal Government has again refused to release the telecommunications metadata of Attorney-General George Brandis, stating that to do so would require “substantial consultation with IT experts” and that it would prevent the Liberal Senator from doing his job.
As Attorney-General, Brandis has been the chief proponent of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2015, which passed the Federal Parliament in March this year. For the first time, it forces Australian telcos and Internet service providers to retain comprehensive records on their customers’ Internet and telephone habits for a period of two years.
Before the legislation pased, journalist Josh Taylor sought access under Freedom of Information laws to have a segment of Brandis’ own metadata as collected by the various government agencies which provide services to the Liberal Senator.
The Attorney-General’s Department’s initial response to the FOI request was to release a redacted version of a Telstra bill — a document which would theoretically detail the calls which Brandis had made using his government mobile phone.
Taylor subsequently filed an appeal with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC).
It appears that the case has not yet been finalised — with the OAIC currently operating in a restricted funding environment. However, it appears that this week the OAIC did release a letter to Taylor sent from Brandis’ chief of staff Paul O’Sullivan to the OAIC with respect to the case. The full letter is available online in PDF format and Taylor’s own article on the subject is online here.
In the latter — dated 27 November last year — O’Sullivan broadly wrote that it would cause an unreasonable diversion of resources for Brandis’ staff to have to process Taylor’s FOI request and release the Attorney-General’s metadata.
O’Sullivan firstly notes in his letter that he is “not a trained specialist in telecommunications or information technology” and that “nor are the other staff in the office”, however, he believes that the information sought by Taylor would be broadly theoretically possible to retrieve.
However, O’Sullivan notes that proceeding with Taylor’s request would cause “a very substantial diversion of the resources of the office away from supporting the Attorney in the exercise of his functions”.
“I can only assume that a substantial amount of consultation with IT experts would be required, many hours would need to be devoted to redaction of irrelevant or exempt material, and devices across a number of locations would need to be examined,” wrote O’Sullivan.
“Even if security and privacy concerns could be overcome, so that at least parts of the job could be delegated to others, it remains the case that the Attorney-General’s smartphone would need to be taken away from him, perhaps for a significant period of time.”
The news comes as debate continues over just what level of access the public can expect to the details of Ministers’ schedules and other data.
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus — a former Attorney-General himself — has fought an extensive legal battle with Brandis in recent months, seeking access to the Liberal Senator’s diary.
Should Attorney-General George Brandis be forced to release his metadata? Is it hypocritical of him to keep his metadata secret, after enacting legislation which will see all Australians’ metadata scooped up and provided to law enforcement agencies?
It’s a difficult question.
On the one hand, it is very important that our politicians are transparent and accountable in terms of their actions, and there is no doubt that the current mechanisms for providing transparency and accountability are quite weak. The FOI Act has effectively been neutered, and pretty much all important FOI requests are routinely denied. It has also become commonplace for Ministers to ignore information requests from the body that has become the Parliament’s chief self-review body — the Senate.
However, it is also important that Minister such as Brandis enjoy a modicum of confidentiality in order to carry out their work.
I’ve worked in a Senator’s office myself, and I can say that the work of politicians and their staff would be severely hampered if everything they did was monitored and tracked at a micro level. Politicians, like journalists and other sensitive professions such as lawyers, need to ensure a certain degree of confidentiality in their offices.
In the most basic of examples, politicians often receive document leaks — from public servants, whistleblowers, members of the public and even from within the political sector. They need to be able to protect their sources of information, as journalists do.
Furthermore, the Data Retention legislation was enacted to make data available to investigate criminal activity. Nobody is arguing that Brandis has breached any law here … so the Data Retention legislation’s test for the release of data would not apply. Brandis is not necessarily being hypocritical by viewing the release of his own metadata as unnecessary.
However, on the other hand, much of the technical argument being advanced by O’Sullivan here is clearly preposterous.
It would be relatively trivial for the information sought by Taylor to be gathered up. It is held by the Department of Parliamentary Services and the Attorney-General’s Department centrally. The overwhelming majority of it would be routine and could safely be released.
Sure, it might take the AGD many hours to evaluate which tidbits of information are sensitive, but then I’m sure Taylor would be able to fund that effort through a crowdsourcing effort.
Ultimately my view is that it’s probably not in the public interest for the Attorney-General of the day to be forced to release all of their metadata. But I would also argue that current public accountability measures applying to powerful figures such as Brandis are ineffective. The push-back regarding this FOI request indicates they need to be strengthened.
Image credit: Parliamentary Broadcasting