Fight for VoIP data at centre of data retention

"Good old days" of fixed line call records disappear as Attorney-General struggles to retain crime fighting data

Members of the Federal Attorney-General’s Department revealed on Friday that the data retention regime currently under examination with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) is largely a result of fleeting data records kept by service providers for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) communications.

In a Senate inquiry into the adequacy of protections for the privacy of Australians online, AFP assistant commissioner, Neil Gaughan, told senators the data retention regime proposal from the Attorney-General’s Department centred around keeping the “status quo” of telecommunications records.

Both Gaughan and members of the department maintained that only metadata - the time, cost, location and persons involved in a communication - would be retained under such a regime, and that the contents of the communication would only be sought after through an affidavit from a court if required. However, department assistant secretary, Catherine Smith, said the “good old days” of fixed line call records had disappeared.

“If there’s any changes it will obviously have a significant impact on our ability to do investigations after the event in time,” Gaughan said.

Instead, the department had been warned by industry that call records associated with VoIP communications would likely only store data use associated with the call, rather than the information stored under a normal telephone call.

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“Traditionally available telecommunications data - such as person X called person Y at this time - may no longer be available,” Smith said at the inquiry. “[Industry] indicates that this is a natural evolution as a result of advances in technology and business models.

“The development of a data retention proposal is intended to ensure a national and systematic approach is taken for the availability of telecommunications data for investigative purposes. Data retention will not give agencies new powers, it will ensure that existing investigation capabilities remain available.”

The data retention proposals currently being examined by the department would mandate service providers retain additional data for VoIP for a prescribed amount of time.

Gaughan argued the balance between user privacy and “the public good” was currently acceptable, and should be maintained as such in the implementation of any data retention model.

However, Greens senator, Scott Ludlam - who called for the inquiry in June - criticised the department for failing to consult publicly about the proposal beyond industry and representative bodies.

“I would have thought in the light of this expansion of data to be retained you would be talking to civil libertarians, privacy activists, take your pick,” he said.

“From a law enforcement perspective, ideally we would all be walking around with video cameras attached to ourselves. Is anybody at the table willing to acknowledge that here are very important privacy implications in effectively treating the entire Australian population as suspects in unknown or un-prosecuted offences just to retain that data just in case anyone turned out to be a child abuser.”

Ludlam’s comments rise from criticisms laid against data retention regimes from Australian Privacy Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, who said earlier in the day that his office would not support any retention of user data “on the chance that it may be just useful at some later date”.

Smith confirmed the Attorney-General’s Department was yet to accept or implement any such retention proposal, but could not clarify the extent to which the Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, was involved in approving evidence gathering by the department.

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