Abbott government brings forward consideration of plans to store phone and internet records of Australians

Controversial plans to force telcos to store the phone and internet records of everyday Australians for law enforcement purposes have been brought forward and are likely to go before cabinet on Tuesday.

ASIO head David Irvine last month described the power to access phone and internet company's records without a warrant as "absolutely crucial" to combatting the threat of local terrorism.

The government had previously said the plan was under "active consideration" but cabinet is now anticipated to deal with the proposal to store the so-called "metadata" earlier than planned.

Attorney-General George Brandis has already flagged the government's intention to strengthen the meaning of what constitutes terrorism to incorporate the promotion of terror as a criminal act.

The Parliament is considering legislation, which, if passed, would allow Australia's spy agencies to tap into computer networks rather than sole terminals.

It would also allow greater intelligence sharing between agencies and make it illegal for anyone to copy or disclose classified files.

Lawyers, including Edward Snowden's US defence attorney, have suggested the laws concerning disclosure were "draconian" and "chilling" as they would threaten intelligence leakers with 10 years' imprisonment and make it an offence for journalists to report on information they receive from whistleblowers.

The government has played down the impacts of the proposal on telecommunications companies saying they already store customers' logs for billing purposes.

But telcos such as iiNet say they have no need to store the details. iiNet has also said the government has been contradictory at times in public and private over what type of data should be stored.

The company's chief regulatory officer Steve Dalby said last week that mandatory data retention regimes turned commercial companies into "unwilling agents of the state".

"iiNet does not agree that it should accept the role proposed by those calling for an onerous data retention regime," he said. "If we are ultimately compelled by law to collect such data, the government must be responsible for its storage and protection . . . iiNet has no use for surveillance data, so there is no commercial driver to collect a massive volume of data, indexed to individuals, that we’ll never use.”

In April, a similar data retention scheme was ruled "invalid" by the Court of Justice of the European Union in response to a case brought by Digital Rights Ireland against the Irish authorities and others.

Soon after, the UK rushed through new "emergency" laws that made it mandatory again. The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that mandatory data retention entailed "a wide-ranging and particularly serious interference with the fundamental rights to respect for private life and to the protection of personal data, without that interference being limited to what is strictly necessary".

Senator Brandis said in July that the measure was aimed at picking up cases such as a person making repeated calls to a number overseas that is known to be associated with a terrorist group.

But he said security agencies would access only the "metadata", that is the time and duration of the call but "not the content".

Metadata on internet use can also include the time, location, sender and receiver, and some have argued it could also include URLs and IP addresses accessed.

Senator Brandis added that under existing powers ASIO could apply to tap a phone if officers suspected terrorist activity.

The government has been arguing the need for its national security changes by highlighting Australian nationals who have travelled abroad to fight alongside terrorists in Syria and Iraq.

But it has also stressed the current laws are not "just about Syria and Iraq", rather the result of a bipartisan parliamentary committee to "modernise and contemporise" the ASIO Act because it "predates the internet".

Labor leader Bill Shorten said on Tuesday that the government had not consulted the opposition and pleaded with the Prime Minister not to turn national security into a political issue.

He pledged to keep an ''open mind'' on whatever the government proposes, but cautioned that it was important to ''get the balance right''.

He said it was fundamental ''to make sure spy agencies can keep Australia safe'', but added that the government had to ensure that ''private conversations on the internet are not intruded upon by 'Big Brother' ''.

The Greens described it as a plan to ''spy on every Australian'' and ''treat every Australian as a suspect''.

with Ben Grubb

The story Abbott government brings forward consideration of plans to store phone and internet records of Australians first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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