Metadata laws must be urgently reformed

By Jerome Doraisamy|23 July 2019

The Morrison Government must move to scale back federal metadata laws in the wake of the “extraordinary high rate” at which the AFP is accessing the communications history of journalists, argues the Human Rights Law Centre.

The comments come as the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security conducts its review of “controversial” metadata retention laws that require telecommunication companies to retain records of every single person’s calls, texts, and internet browsing history for at least two years.

The government claimed, in 2015, that “the laws were necessary to investigate serious crimes like murder, but the data has also been sought to chase down parking fines”, HRLC posited.

HRLC lawyer Alice Drury said that the current regime allows law enforcement bodies to “watch everybody, all of the time”.

“These laws were meant to prevent serious crime, but in reality, they have been used to investigate journalists, and by local councils to chase down litterbugs. It allows mass surveillance without any of the necessary safeguards to protect our fundamental rights to privacy,” she argued.

“A key issue with the metadata law is that access to data is available without a warrant, except where police are wanting to find a journalist’s source, in which case a journalist information warrant is required.”

“Whistleblowers and journalists increasingly face investigation and prosecution for reporting important stories on government corruption, misconduct and overreach. Even when a warrant is required to chase down journalists’ confidential sources, the process is flawed, untransparent, and ultimately a flimsy protection for freedom of the press.”

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The landscape of human rights has “drastically changed over the past few decades”, with technological leaps providing incredible leaps in accessibility, connectivity and equality, Digital Rights Watch chair Tim Singleton mused, while noting that the flip side of this is an increase in governments seeking to surveil, control and intervene in the private online lives of citizens.

“The mandatory metadata retention scheme and associated mass surveillance operations such as the national facial biometric data capability continue to create huge invasions on the rights of ordinary Australians. Recent revelations about the scale of metadata requests from government agencies has shown how enticing these powers can be when they lack the necessary transparency and oversight,” he said.

HRLC and DRW presented a joint submission to the parliamentary joint committee, recommending that “significant improvements” be made to the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 (Cth) to bring it in line with Australia’s human rights obligations.

Those proposed improvements include: “ensuring that only the metadata of people connected with the commission of a serious crime is retained, limiting access to metadata to the investigation of serious crimes, such as murder and child abuse, requiring a warrant for access to metadata in all instances, excluding journalists, whistleblowers and human rights defenders from investigation for public interest reporting and reducing the amount of time that metadata is retained”, HRLC noted in a statement.

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Metadata laws must be urgently reformed
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