Is Australia following China in metadata collection?

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Police already have access to the metadata of Australian citizens from certain Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Telecommunication companies (Telcos). The list of others that have and can already gain access to metadata without a warrant and for undisclosed purposes include Centrelink, Local councils, The RSPCA, The ATO, Australia Post, Energy regulators, Medicare and even the Victorian Taxi Directorate. Over 330,000 requests were made for metadata in the last financial year (2012/13).

China’s highest court, The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has just recently released a new guideline pressuring Internet Service Providers ISPs to hand over the metadata of users suspected of “rights violations”. The court has called for the ISPs to be punished if they refuse to hand over the names, IP addresses and other metadata of those believed to have committed these violations. The Chinese government controls the media and online social networks are subject to heavy censorship.

It also wants to crack down on paid Internet postings and post deletions even though the government uses the same tactics to “guide public opinion” and to crack down on dissent. “Some posters, as well as workers at network service providers, often use their computer skills to make money, and that leads to a disorderly Internet,” court spokesman Sun Jungong told the state-run China Daily newspaper. Hundreds of bloggers and journalists have been rounded up over the last year in a government-backed campaign against “Internet rumours”.

The court also deemed that well-known Internet commentators known as “Big Vs” will be held to a higher standard than ordinary online posters. “If you are a verified celebrity, your obligations when re-posting online information are greater than those of the general public,” senior SPC judge Yao Hui told Xinhua news.

The “wu mao” (online commentators) are employed by the government to post comments that are favourable towards their party policies and to shape public or “netizens” opinions on Internet message boards and forums. The commentators are known as the 50-Cent Party, as they are reported to be paid 50 cents for every post that steers a discussion away from anti-party content or that advances the Communist Party line. In 2010, the state-run Global Times newspaper reported that Gansu province alone was looking to recruit 650 full-time web commentators “to guide public opinion on controversial issues”. Private companies that try to do the same, will be punished according to the new regulation. Paid Internet postings “can boost reputations by creating the impression that the online voices are genuine, when in truth the voices are purchased,” the China Daily newspaper reported.
When an anonymous wu-mao was asked how big a role they think that their industry plays in guiding public opinion in China they replied: “Truthfully speaking, I think the role is quite big. The majority of netizens in China are actually very stupid. Sometimes, if you don’t guide them, they really will believe in rumours.”
When the interviewer responded: “Because their information is limited to begin with. So, with limited information, it’s very difficult for them to express a political view.”
They replied: “I think they can be incited very easily. I can control them very easily. Depending on how I want them to be, I use a little bit of thought and that’s enough. It’s very easy. So I think the effect should be quite significant.”
The similarities between both countries becomes apparent when we consider the rise of Australia’s ‘online commentators’ which came to light during the Federal election last year. The Labor Party (ALP) and the Liberal Party (LNP) were accused of buying fake Twitter followers and Facebook fans, mobilising alleged unpaid Twitter armies and with some politicians such as LNP Currumbin branch chairman Tim Gear reportedly boasting on his Facebook page that: “We all have troll accounts.” 

It’s worth noting that the ‘Cash for Tweets’ scandal in 2012 involving South Australia Tourism, where celebrities were paid to promote Kangaroo Island with positive tweets, was found not to be in breach of the Australian Consumer Law (ACL).

In June this year Wikipedia cracked down on bias with a new subsection to it’s Terms of Use stating that anyone editing an article on behalf of an organisation must add their affiliation to their edit summary, user page or talk page. Paid-for editors are only required to disclose their employer or client and affiliation, not specific details of how they are paid. Wikipedia said on it’s FAQ page that the move protected it’s ‘good-faith editors’ of Wikimedia projects.

The non-profit organisation, which operates Wikipedia, warned companies to “avoid embarrassment” by complying: “As repeated real life examples illustrate, paid editing without appropriate disclosure can result in negative publicity for companies, clients, and individuals…“Failing to include a disclosure with a paid contribution may lead to a loss of trust with the broader public in addition to the Wikimedia community.” The subsection was added to section four of Wikimedia’s Terms of Use summary page. It warned that “deceptive business practices” may be illegal in many jurisdictions including the US and the EU.

The former John Howard government was caught out in 2007 for 162 instances of editing Wikipedia entries relating to the Children Overboard Affair and Mandatory Detention. On the controversial policy of mandatory detention for asylum-seekers, an employee inserted the word “allegedly” into a statement saying that immigration detainees were subject to inhumane conditions. The children overboard affair where Mr Howard was acting on intelligence at the time, was that refugees seeking asylum in Australia were using a supposed lure to secure rescue and passage by throwing their children overboard. The now defunct website, WikiScanner, also identified the Department of Defence (DOD) as being behind more than 5,000 changes to entries on the online encyclopedia. Wikiscanner was a homemade programme created by US hacker Virgil Griffith, it didn’t identify individuals but revealed which organisation’s computer network was behind a Wikipedia entry. Mr Griffith’s programme pinpointed the CIA and the Vatican as behind hundreds of self-serving edits on the popular website.

The DOD blocked staff from editing Wikipedia after they had made changes ranging from correcting information about the Australian military to removing negative comments about Howard governments Liberal Party. “Defence has closed personal edit access down, though employees will still be able to browse Wikipedia for information purposes,” a defence spokesman said at the time. The head of the then Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Dr Peter Shergold, said changes to Wikipedia were not made by anyone in his department or the Prime Minister’s office. He said the network address appearing next to the changes is that of another customer on the same internet service provider.

The Australian government is currently seeking to have Telecommunication companies retain data of all Australian’s for up to two years. Details on this are scarce with two discussion papers released to the industry but not to the public. The first paper was leaked to Fairfax Media, stating that ISPs would need to retain customer details including their name, address, registered devices, identification used on the account, billing details, and the “available bandwidth” and “upload and/or download volumes” on a user’s broadband service. The second discussion paper is still not available to the public, however iiNet has made it’s response public.

They said that they had received a significant level of feedback from both their customers and other members of the public and that the majority supported their opposition to mandatory data retention. And further that they believed that ‘blanket data retention’ is mass surveillance. It is not something that they currently do, and that it would add significant costs to the way that they do in their business. The basis of their objections is the lack of evidence that the proposed changes will be more effective than the current laws that already exist with which they already co-operate with law enforcement agencies; a lack of justification as to why the time frame to retain data is two years; no explanation as to why the existing (and less than two years) preservation notice regime is insufficient; it specifies that it’s agents are not ‘agents of the state’ and if that it is to take on the role, the government should be responsible for the storage or security of the metadata. It also mentions the International trend away from blanket data retention by progressive governments, particularly in Europe. It has many serious unanswered questions for Attorney-General (AG) George Brandis such as, how the system would incorporate the Privacy Act; limits on agency access to data, metadata disposal and how the government proposed to ensure that the data is only used for National security or serious law enforcement.
Couple this with The Sydney Morning’s Herald Deputy technology editor, Ben Grubb’s 15 month pursuit of obtaining his own metadata from Telstra and one wonders what is really going on. In short after many months of wrangling to get his metadata and getting nowhere, he ended up with a public hearing last week. In the hearing shortly after, Telstra’s barrister Jeremy Masters spent over two hours explaining Telstra’s reasons for refusing access, focusing on it’s belief that metadata is not ‘personal information’ and the extra costs and difficulty involved in gaining access to the information. Mr Grubb has a good point when he considers it odd that this request is difficult when they provide this information to government agencies for a fee that he has no problem paying.
He hopes that Privacy commissioner Timothy Pilgrim sides with him, especially considering The ZDNet’s Josh Taylor’s Freedom Of Information (FOI) request resulted in the AG’s department calling his metadata ‘personal information’. The government is still considering releasing the information and has asked Mr Taylor for $621.
The AFP at the end of August this year were found to have mistakenly published highly sensitive information – including metadata – connected to criminal investigations, in a serious breach of operational security. The Guardian Australia revealed that the AFP provided documents to the Senate, which were then made publicly available online on parliamentary sites and other sources for several years, and which accidentally disclosed information about the subjects and focus of criminal investigations and telecommunications interception activities. The information that police disclosed included the address of a target subject to surveillance, the types of criminal investigations and offences being investigated, the names of several AFP officers not publicly available and other information including the phone number of an individual connected to an investigation.
If we recall the Australian’s government’s Immigration security breach in February this year, that exposed 10,000 refugee detainees data, we have to ask if the proposed extra security measures are not just unwarranted and unsubstantiated but ill conceived. Opening the door for metadata collection in the way that the government is proposing, in what we know so far can only open the way for corruption and the manipulation of information for vested interests and things like identify theft.
And more common base human traits like nosiness, revenge and envy?
In Queensland (QLD) last year the police came under fire for pulling the mobile phone records of their officers under the guise of alleged fake criminal probes. It is understood that police investigators had sought the records belonging to an officer suspected of throwing a sickie; an officer missing on the job for several hours and to determine whether police cadets were having sexual relationships at academies.

QLD police requested Call Charge Records (CCRs) 36,531 times last year, which was three times the number made in 2009. CCRs reveal details of when and where calls and texts are made and received, the time and the duration of the conversation. It doesn’t include the content of conversations. The Police Union (PU) president Ian Leavers said the access of police officers’ private telephone records for minor disciplinary matters was done in a “potentially illegal and unlawful manner”.

There is still hope that these proposed laws will at the very least be scrutinised by the Senate because when the amended legislation was first passed, there were 12 Independent and Greens Senators who did vote against the legislation. And it’s there that the Greens Communications spokesperson Scott Ludlam is hoping to gain an additional 25 votes from the ALP party to block the upcoming mandatory data retention legislation. “Can we please make the internet uninhabitable for Labor senators for the next two weeks?,” Mr Ludlam asked the Communications Day Congress in Melbourne at the end of last September.

In conclusion I find that the unmitigated rush for every skerrick of our metadata is unjustified. Could new rushed security laws be used against citizens in Australia through law drafting ineptness? Especially when we consider journalist, Peter Greste and similar draconian laws in Egypt. Anything that is so rushed which is so important to every Australian’s liberties, especially as Global citizens, needs to always be questioned and not deemed as being a part of any Anti-team.

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