Sweeping metadata laws must be scaled back

Amidst reports last week of the extraordinarily high rate at which the Australian Federal Police accessed the communications history of journalists, the Human Right Law Centre, Digital Rights Watch and Access Now have called on the Morrison Government to urgently reform metadata laws.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is conducting a 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. In 2015 the Government claimed the laws were necessary to investigate serious crimes like murder, but the data has also been sought to chase down parking fines.

Alice Drury, Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said:

“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.”

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, un-transparent, and ultimately a flimsy protection for freedom of the press.”

Tim Singleton Norton, Chair of Digital Rights Watch, said: 

“The landscape of human rights has drastically changed over the past few decades, with technological leaps providing incredible leaps in accessibility, connectivity and equality. But the flipside 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.”

The joint submission recommends 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, including:

  • 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.   

Read the submission to the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security here.