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<p>Nikhil Sonnad/The Global Mail</p>

Nikhil Sonnad/The Global Mail

Tasmania, The Peephole State

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.

“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”

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.

“The police in Tasmania have been running a none-too-subtle campaign for [the introduction of] anti-association laws in the State and are arguing that [police intelligence] shows an increase in bikie activity in the state.”

“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.

19 comments on this story
by Mark

Sorry GM but isn't this all a bit tabloid? Tasmanian agencies make five more applications per capita than New South Wales, with Victoria fifteen behind that. I'm not sure if that tells us much at all. Why are these raw numbers disturbing? Is there an "acceptable" level of access requests and Tasmania Police have used up their quota? Are they all inappropriate or unnecessary because they make more applications than another jurisdiction? Maybe their fisheries authorities are more vigilant than those in NSW. In any case, and for every every list ever compiled, someone has to be in first position. And on what basis do we start linking the applications with anti association legislation? I doubt Mr Lennard and his friends riding around on green Kawasakis, desperately clinging to their fast fading youth, are of much interest to police investigating organised crime. I'm also pretty sure the wallopers understand the difference between bikies engaged in organised criminal behaviour and those who just happen to ride motor cycles. As for Mr Barns' claims that police looking for more serious crimes are stumbling on what he describes as "small time deals", well I'm not sure that's necessarily a bad outcome. An interesting defence though. "Your Honour, I was only delivering a deal to my friend, but the police were actually looking for Mr Big."

Maybe the tack of this story should have been an attack on South Australia Police fo not making enough applications for Meta Data. Lazy bastards.

August 16, 2013 @ 7:01pm
by Donn Umber

Public safety demands that police agencies utilise the latest technologies and be proactive rather than reactive. But is the practice of examining "metadata" a cost-effect tool for reducing crime or an invasive and inefficient means of randomly fishing for law violators? To answer this key question requires evaluation of both the numbers and types of criminal arrests that result if but for the use of this controversial tactic. Police must provide more than lip service to ensure this is being done and can readily do so without compromising ongoing investigations. And the public deserves to know that individuals are not being arbitrarily targeted for such warrantless examination of their private activities. These issues beg for a reasonable layer of oversight not currently in place. - @donnzpg

August 17, 2013 @ 10:31am
by Matthew

There is an interesting angle. Lets compare the number and nature of arrests and convictions between Tassie and SA and see if this massive data collection actually makes a difference to the quality of law enforcement.

August 17, 2013 @ 12:47pm
by Wim

I am old enough to remember the Second World War, my mum and Dad needed an auschweiz to go shopping or visit relatives. Also razzias were a regular occurrence and if you didn't fit in with their requirements off you went for interrogation. It made people aware that they were watched and it felt unsafe you were always. Looking over your shoulder. After that in the 50's it was Stalin who changed the rules of democracy everyone was listening in what their neighbours and relatives were doing. And the western world were telling us that there was no-personal freedom in the Soviet Block. Our Australian democracy is on its way to Be the same. Big brother is watching us every where. All personal information is gathered by security cameras when you walk the street, email, SMS or call a friend or family member to have a chat. I am nearly 80 and start looking forward to the end of my life because I don't like what I am seeing and hearing anymore, I want to feel safe and free when I walk the streets or SMS, email or phone a friend.

August 17, 2013 @ 2:45pm
by Terry Wall

Maybe they grow way too much "weed" down in Tassie and the CIA fearing competition are using Prism to check it out. Would make a lot of sense if you think of their costs in Afghanistan. Hoot!

August 17, 2013 @ 4:50pm
by snooped

I want my privacy -what INTERNET PROVIDER IS GOING TO ADVERTISE -we wont be snooping on you
The other day I rang Unisuper to ask a question on auper -the while waiting recording said you maybe recorded for training purposes -when the ossifer came on the line i requested that Inot be recorded -he replied then we can no longer continue the conversation end of story
This is disgusting & unwarranted
and people or organisations who are a peeping tom on peoples lives should be thrown behind bars -our society is foundational on THE RIGHT TO PRIVACY -where is that privacy what internet company is going to guarantee me my right to privacy
I am just so so disgusted
ireceived a threatening call from a call centre based in Sydney -I went to the police with the scarry threat -the police replied they havnt the time to check it thru there is not enough evidence -I asked -well what if ihad recorededthe call -the detective angrily replied -then we would arrest you for no permission to recored which is a breach of the privacy act -we live in interesting times

August 17, 2013 @ 4:50pm
by TelecommsManager

Dear Snooped
You should have got the detective's name (and number). He/she is entirely wrong. It is not an offence to record a call if you: i.) tell the other party the call is being recorded (while recording that statment) or ii.) use a device which issues asmall beep every 10 - 15 seconds during he call. Ask any professional share trader - their trading desk is fitted with this device. These are the guidelines under the Comm. Telecommunications Act.

August 17, 2013 @ 6:12pm
by Mark

Telecommsmanager - in fact the law in relation to recording conversations of which you are a part varies from state to state.

And I suspect the "detective" that Snooped spoke to was simply trying to get rid of him, give that he is clearly a conspiracy theorist. A threatening call from a call centre? Society founded on the "RIGHT TO PRIVACY"? Won't talk to some poor administrative officer because the company records calls? Indiscriminate use of UPPER CASE LETTERS TO MAKE A POINT!!!! Seems to fit the pattern...

August 18, 2013 @ 7:53am
by Tej

"Disturbing" is very... lacklustre.

August 18, 2013 @ 9:17pm
by Andrew H

Re Tassie's high numbers (relatively), Mark (7.01pm) and Matthew (12.47pm) make the best points. Namely TAS police are broke and this is a cheap policing practice (within policing circles such penny pinching is usually referred to as 'intelligence-led policing'. And with a straight face as well). But does it work? Probably not. Matthew's point re comparing the highest and lowest surveillance states (TAS/SA) and their crime rates and crime clearances is the sort of evidence based response most police services avoid like the plague. They tend to count activity, not assess results. It's a good idea, but it won't happen.

More disturbing is the comment from Paula Swatman (hopefully taken out of context) that, “If you’re being observed all the time and you don’t mind living in a goldfish bowl, then I guess it’s fine.”

It's not fine, regardless of personal belief. Constant surveillance changes what type of 'fish' in the bowl you are. There are numerous studies in psychology that losing the concept and practices associated with privacy are detrimental to an individual's longterm wellbeing and sanity (although reading 1984 may have saved a lot of that research funding!). And by extension this isn't likely to be much good to the overall good of society either, inasmuch as such a claim can even make sense.

August 19, 2013 @ 9:41am
by Coreena

What ever data the Tas police are collecting I can assure you that crime (hooning, car theft anti-social behaviour etc) in my housing commission suburb is rife. Last year a young man was shot because neighbours thought he was a police informer and I've been warned my home will be burned down if someone decides they don't like me. I'm a woman living alone. Blaring music into the early hours on school nights is not uncommon enough.

August 20, 2013 @ 2:16am
by A Curiae

without a warrant and "show due cause" ie some proveable grounds! then NO one should be able to hack n tap private comms.
Gillards sneaky approvals..well can't say I was surprised, just like she slid no opt-out airport screening in with no public input allowed either.
expect it get more invasive not less as USSA privacy invasion goons keep coming here to push our gullible easily panicked pollies into signing what little personal freedoms(if any) we have left! the ever so secret fretrade deals now ongoing are a backdoor for the yanks to access even more under the megacorps pushing for copyright/ downloads snoop intrusion rights over us all etc SOPA Pipa or whatever acronym they use. its Illegal to open n read snailmail it should be so for email and other comms between private persons.

August 23, 2013 @ 8:59pm
by kevin marshall

I am a resident of tasmanian born and raised now 42 years I vow to raise local support in the thousands to combat this oppressed and bullied state we live in .I had rights growing up and I demand them for my children, my name is kevin marshall and soon everyone in this state will know it

September 4, 2013 @ 11:56pm
by jason pistol

This is ludicrous, police should be solving real crime what matters to people like hooning, theft, assaults, vandalism, racism etc.. and not snooping on peoples phone calls & emails. We need a proper constitution to protect our rights & privacy. Will Labor get off their fat arse and do anything about it, I doubt it they are too busy with Gay marriage legislation, euthanasia legislation, abortion legislation all and anything to help the depraved what do normal people get they get spied on. Think before you vote at the next election.

November 9, 2013 @ 12:33pm
by Innocent Party

I am very sorry to everyone who has stuff to hide, but if being able to see who I call, email, and text and when and where I do it from, helps centrelink stop one scummy bastard from getting their hands on tax payers money, then I am all for it.

November 12, 2013 @ 5:21pm
by sanyo

@Innocent party -I hope you are never subject to the arbitrary persecution by a state bureaucracy, nor that you ever require some kind of financial assistance from Centrelink (I trust your retirement will be fully funded by yourself, for example), for your serving of humble pie in the off chance either of these things occur in your life will be large & unpalatable indeed.

Your lack of compassion & nuance is astounding, by the way.

November 14, 2013 @ 3:25pm
Show previous 16 comments
by Rob

@jason I'm deeply confused. I'm not pro labour at all (politically centrist), but the liberal party has a much longer history of pushing for totalitarianism on privacy and the new liberal govt has legislated much more of a totalitarian state than ever before.

Also, the things you say the labour party is 'busy wasting time on' are all civil liberties, things that fall directly in the same court as privacy legislation.

I generally tend to be depressed that we have a dual-conversative political environment in Australia, and wonder how we got into this mess. Then I look at it's constituents.

December 15, 2013 @ 7:33pm
by Lleuad Ci

"Nothing to hide, nothing to fear" is simplistic logic not supported by operational experience. BTW everyone hides things, it starts with wearing clothes.

December 16, 2013 @ 10:13am
by Civ Resistor

Who wears clothes?

January 10, 2014 @ 11:57pm
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