Tasmania, The Peephole State
By Clare BlumerAugust 16, 2013
With fresh calls for the next federal government to adopt a mandatory data retention plan, it’s time to ask: What’s going on with surveillance in Australia’s rural tourist destination?
Australia’s picturesque island state of Tasmania lures tourists with the slogans “Go Behind The Scenery” and “Explore The Possibilities”. The Tasmanian police force is certainly heeding the call, merrily going behind the local “scenery” and exploring plenty – accessing more personal data of its residents through surveillance, on a per capita basis, than the police in any other Australian state.
Tasmanians “might also be surprised that this can occur without [the police] getting a warrant,” says lawyer Richard Griggs, who runs the Tasmanian chapter of Civil Liberties Australia.
The Global Mail has analysed national records concerning the so-called metadata accessed, no warrant required, by government agencies across Australia, from July 2007 to June 2012. (It was in 2007 that the Howard Government changed the rules; before that time, such data could not be accessed without a national security purpose.)
This metadata includes telephone details (as in the numbers a person has called, how long they spoke, and where they were when they placed the call) and email information (such as who they’ve emailed and when, and the IP addresses used). The actual content of phone calls and emails requires a separate application for a warrant.
The government is authorised to collect this information either ‘for the protection of public revenue’ (Centrelink accessed the data more than any other agency, on the basis it would find welfare cheats) or for criminal investigations. All up, government agencies in Australia accessed 1,286,369 metadata records over those five years.
A new report on national security from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) argues that “Telecommunications interception provides vital support to intelligence and law enforcement operational and investigative work and can’t be replaced by other capabilities.”
Tasmanian agencies are making full use of what capabilities they now have. The Global Mail’s analysis shows that, for reasons unknown (tip-offs welcome), the phone and email information of Tasmanians is being accessed more than any other state in the country on a per capita basis — its population as of December 2012 was just 512,422.
The overwhelming bulk of this data was accessed by Tasmania Police (36,226 authorisations to access phone or internet records) and Tasmania Prison Service (23 authorisations).
Is Tassie a hotbed of terrorism and organised crime, as these figures might suggest? If you examine the criminal convictions made in the states and territories, Tasmania is not the frontrunner in criminal activity — the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland outpace Tasmania in convictions per 1,000 persons.
Yet the island state does much more per capita snooping of its population for the purposes of criminal investigation than any other state in the last 12 months reported.
Likewise in reports from 2009 and 2011. In fact, for the four years Tasmania’s been in on this data-collection gig, only in 2010 did another state (New South Wales) do more per-capita snooping.
Tasmania Police declined to comment on whether this had led to arrests; Acting Deputy Commissioner Donna Adams told The Global Mail, in a written statement, police do not “disclose operational detail, for investigative reasons”.
Adams’s statement added: “While the per head of population figures denote that Tasmania Police has accessed the most stored telecommunications data, on the raw figures the number of requests Tasmania Police has made is significantly less than other jurisdictions.”
And that’s true. New South Wales has the largest state population by far, and its police force has accessed the stored telecommunications data more frequently than any other agency (727,390 times since 2007).
When The Global Mail asked NSW Police for more detail on its use of the scheme, its brief written response was that “strict approval processes and procedures are in place to ensure a high level of accountability and probity” for those three-quarters-of-a-million warrantless raids it has made on the data.
Tasmania’s apparently heavy reliance on warrantless data collection is “disturbing” to Greg Barns, a Hobart-based barrister and national campaign manager for the WikiLeaks Party.
“There is no evidence of there being threats, alleged crimes, or other security issues which would lead to Tasmania Police interfering with the privacy of citizens,” Barns says.
Perhaps police are aiming to uncover drug-distribution networks, Barns suggests, but the metadata ends up capturing information about other, less serious crimes.
“We are not talking major trafficking operations here, but small-time deals. I have acted in some of these cases where police run around collecting phone-call data between people allegedly dropping off some dope to a friend in a carpark.”
It might also relate, Barns speculates, to Tasmania Police’s push to introduce laws that make it illegal to interact with members of known criminal organisations.
“The police in Tasmania have been running a none-too-subtle campaign for anti-association laws in the State and are arguing that [police intelligence] shows an increase in bikie activity in the state,” Barns says.
Shaun Lennard, who heads up both the Tasmanian and the Australian Motorcycle Councils, firstly laments that, “If you ride a motorcycle, there’s a view that you must be in a gang.
“Both my state and national organisations, as most members of society would do, support any reasonable action by police to enforce the existing laws and detect people who are involved in criminal activity.”
But he questions the validity of gathering such telecommunications information, and its usefulness.
In his role representing the interests of Australia’s three-quarters-of-a-million motorcycle riders, Lennard says, “on a daily basis I contact dozens of people in the motorcycle sector Australia-wide.
“In terms of tracking people’s mobile phone use, is it really the case that people are having their mobile phone information recorded simply because they’re making contact with someone who’s a known member of an outlaw motorcycle gang?”
Should the super-surveilled Tasmanians be concerned that their civil liberties are being unnecessarily impinged upon?
Paula Swatman, adjunct professor of information systems at the University of Tasmania, said it was “extraordinary” that on a per capita basis, Tasmanian police are collecting more metadata than anyone else in the country.
“A lot of people don’t worry about metadata because they think, ‘Well, how much can you tell from metadata?’ The answer is of course, quite a lot... Over time they [people tracking the data] start building up a complete picture of your activities: where you go, who you call, what websites you like to go to and so-on. You start to get a map of a person’s activity and their behaviour,” she explains.
“It’s an issue in a more general sense, about the way our society is going.
“If you’re being observed all the time and you don’t mind living in a goldfish bowl, then I guess it’s fine.”
In May 2012, the federal parliament reviewed proposals to reform national-security laws.
While the national political media was focussed on the ALP’s spectacular deposing of Prime Minister Julia Gillard for Kevin Rudd, the Attorney General’s department released the results of that report.
The parliamentary committee seems to have raised a collective eyebrow at the plethora of agencies accessing metadata without a warrant. The report recommended a review and reduction of the number of agencies able to access the data. Newly appointed Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus reiterated this in his press release, noting the call for a “comprehensive review” of the communications interception and access regime.
The ASPI’s deputy director, Anthony Bergin, told The Global Mail that national security legislation was comparable to a swerving car: “You have an incident and therefore the car swings madly right and almost ends up in a ditch. When things in improve you think it’s okay and you swing the car to the left.”
He said laws “created for particular circumstances” needed to be reviewed regularly. Still, as Bergin told ABC’s AM program, the next government should adopt a mandatory data retention plan for telecommunications companies.
The Gillard government’s data-retention proposals were extremely controversial, but the legislation proposed, and endorsed by ASPI, merely formalises the responsibility of telco companies to retain data they’ve been routinely handing over to government for years.
As it stands, the Attorney General’s department reports only how often the metadata is accessed and by what agencies, including state and federal police.
“Credit where credit’s due,” says lawyer Griggs. “It’s pleasing to see the data because it’s good for transparency and it allows people to see it and ask questions.
“But as it’s currently presented, it still does beg the question of the metadata: what are the types of crimes [being investigated, and uncovered] and what are the results?
“The key problem is this data can be accessed without warrants. We see [warrants] as a crucial check and balance against law-enforcement agencies operating without oversight.
“We put faith in a process where a magistrate or judge is presented with the reasons why surveillance is required.”
The issue of whether warrants should be required to gain access to such information underpinned Greens Senator Scott Ludlam’s Telecommunications Amendment (Get a Warrant) Bill 2013. The bill expired with the 43rd Parliament, but Ludlam’s office expects the bill to be reintroduced and the inquiry on it will be held over.
Meanwhile The Global Mail invites anyone with knowledge of why Tasmanians are so subject to warrantless surveillance to enlighten us — lest we conclude it’s unwarranted.
With few accountability requirements for access to our data, questioning and discussion are the only defence we have. Abundant questions without answers are the problem.