In Australia, it has come to light that there are as many as 22 government-related agencies which have been provided legal authority to summon metadata from telecom companies.
This has been made possible through laws passed by the legislature last year, but the reality has struck the public at-large after a recent parliamentary hearing.
After the revelation, those opposed to such invasion of privacy have begun referring to the new legal framework as “authority creep.”
Controversial Law Citing National Security
It’s no secret that governments across the world use national security as the excuse for allowing intelligence and security agencies directly involved to ask the telecommunications companies to share the metadata of their customers with them.
In a genuine situation, if an investigative agency has some leads but needs more definite links to make an arrest or build a case like smuggling, drug or gun-running or such crimes against a suspect, one may not find fault with the agencies and the access given to their communications by the telecom companies.
New legislation upholding the government’s access to telecom customers’ metadata, termed Assistance and Access Bill 2018, has recently been placed in the Australian Parliament.
It is currently under the scrutiny of an internal committee and could become a law anytime soon. And the government has cited the very same reasons mentioned above to justify the introduction of the legislation and has a good word for the communications industry, saying they are partners of the government.
Startling Details Reported
The understanding among the stakeholders, including the public, was that some designated 22 agencies alone were part of the laws that gave them the authority to demand that the telecommunication companies share metadata.
The list would start with the Australian Federal Police and other key departments that are entrusted with crime investigations.
During a recent parliamentary hearing, it came to light that these agencies have been relying on these laws and demanding to be given access to personal details.
The Australian industry association Communications Alliance has been deposing before this committee and has informed them that not only did they find more than 22 agencies demanding information from their members, but the number of such demands for metadata is in the range of 1,000 per day.
Many Australians have reacted critically to this development online, with some calling for the names of these agencies to be disclosed to the public.
Defense on the Government Side
The Australian government has not directly reacted to this information. However, the Shadow Attorney General has said that the original intention of the government in enacting the different laws the previous year was not this.
He went on to say they had reduced the number of agencies from 80 to 22 to avoid indiscriminate use of the law to seek personal information of the citizens from their telecom service providers.
The law itself is a bit unclear since what is being asked for is not technically the contents of the communications, but only “metadata.” In addition, some of these agencies which may not figure in the group of 22 may be state-level institutions and not federal in nature, invoking certain provisions in the state laws to force the telecom companies to part with information.
There Is Talk of ‘Systemic Weakness’
The reality on the ground is that some of these communications are in the form of encrypted data and even the companies may not have the keys or the authority to decrypt them.
This has set many to say that the government is forcing these communications companies into building what is described as a “systemic weakness” within their systems.
There is an ongoing debate about what constitutes “systemic weakness.” One may assume that this would mean leaving a door slightly ajar so that the data could be accessed and handed over to the agencies as demanded by law.
But, that could be risky, since any hacker could exploit such weaknesses in the communications network, much to the disadvantage of the public.
The verdict is still pending as debates on the issue of “authority creep” continue.