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Only fools and horse racing: 61 agencies vie for warrantless metadata access

Fancy the RSPCA or Harness Racing NSW getting access to your metadata? New documents obtained under Freedom of Information reveal that more than 60 Government agencies want a piece of the data retention pie.


Attorney-General George Brandis.

Image by CeBIT Australia, CC BY 2.0

After mandatory data retention laws were ushered through Parliament in March last year, privacy advocates warned that Government agencies would have unprecedented power to tap into the communications data of virtually every Australian.

Despite this, Attorney-General George Brandis and his Government were quick to reassure the public: The Data Retention Bill contained a raft of "protections," and the number of groups with access to metadata would be limited.

But it has now emerged that 61 new government agencies and organisations want warrantless access to metadata and they've petitioned the government to get it, according to documents obtained in two similar Freedom of Information requests by ZDNet and privacy advocate Geordie Guy.

The list of agencies and organisations includes groups as diverse as Racing NSW and the Victorian Taxi Services Commission, all of whom applied to the Attorney-General's Department requesting access to metadata -- presumably to work out how often you gamble and how many Ubers you ride in a given week.

Under new laws brought into force in October 2015, all Australian telcos and Internet service providers are required to store customers' communications data for a minimum of two years. The data set is broad according to critics, and includes details such as account holder names and addresses, the time and duration of communications and the location of equipment used for communications, including cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots.

In passing the laws, Attorney-General George Brandis Department reiterated that access to the potentially personally-identifying data would be limited.

"The number of agencies that can avail themselves of this [warrantless access] power is reduced by more than three-quarters, from 85 at the moment to 21," said Brandis during the final reading of the bill [PDF]. "This limits, in a way that is not part of the existing law, access to metadata. If the authorities want to go one step further and tap somebody's phone, access their computer or engage in other forms of intrusive investigative activity, they need a warrant--and they should."

A cut from 85 to 21 Government bodies was heralded as a win for privacy and oversight.

However, some of the organisations who lost access to metadata want it back, with the documents obtained under FOI showing that 61 organisations and agencies have sought "ongoing access" to retained data.

The Data Retention Bill grants the AGD the right to approve new agencies by 'ministerial declaration,' and 61 separate bodies have applied to the AGD for that privilege. However, the AGD confirmed to CNET that "the Attorney-General has not temporarily declared any additional enforcement agencies."

The list of applications ranges from the Federal Department of Health, to the West Australian Department of Fisheries and Department of Mines and Petroleum, right down to Bankstown City Council in New South Wales.

While none of the applicants have yet received the tick of approval, the list does speak to the fears of data retention critics who raised concerns about the "scope creep" built into the bill. One such opponent is Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, who slammed the Government for quietly granting access to Border Force in May last year.

According to Senator Ludlam, Senator Brandis had "made a great show of narrowing the range of agencies that would be able to access this collected material," but that giving the power to the Attorney-General to approve warrantless metadata access on a case-by-case basis was a slippery slope.

Take a look at the full list (or check out the original PDF of the FOI documents here) and you be the judge.

  1. Australian Financial Security Authority
  2. Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency
  3. Australian Postal Corporation
  4. Australian Taxation Office
  5. Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre
  6. Civil Aviation Safety Authority
  7. Clean Energy Regulator
  8. Department of Agriculture
  9. Department of Defence
  10. Department of the Environment
  11. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
  12. Department of Health
  13. Department of Human Services
  14. Department of Social Services
  15. Fair Work Building and Construction
  16. National Measurement Institute
  17. ACT Revenue Office
  18. Access Canberra (Department of Treasury and Economic Development) -- ACT
  19. Bankstown City Council -- NSW
  20. Consumer Affairs -- VIC
  21. Consumer, Building and Occupational Services -- TAS
  22. Consumer and Business Services -- SA
  23. [Redacted]
  24. [Redacted]
  25. Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry -- QLD
  26. Department of Commerce -- WA
  27. Department of Corrective Services -- WA
  28. Department of Environment and Heritage Protection -- QLD
  29. Department of Economic Development, Jobs Transport & Resources (Fisheries) -- VIC
  30. Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning -- VIC
  31. Department of Environment Regulation -- WA
  32. Department of Fisheries -- WA
  33. Department of Justice and Regulation (Consumer Affairs) -- VIC
  34. Department of Justice and Regulation (Sheriff of Victoria) -- VIC
  35. Department of Mines and Petroleum -- WA
  36. [Redacted]
  37. Department of Primary Industries (Fisheries) -- NSW
  38. Environment Protection Authority -- SA
  39. Greyhound Racing Victoria -- VIC
  40. Harness Racing New South Wales -- NSW
  41. Health Care Complaints Commission -- NSW
  42. Legal Services Board -- VIC
  43. NSW Environment Protection Authority
  44. NSW Fair Trading
  45. Office of Environment & Heritage -- NSW
  46. Office of Fair Trading -- QLD
  47. Office of State Revenue -- NSW
  48. Office of State Revenue -- QLD
  49. Office of the Racing Integrity Commissioner -- VIC
  50. Primary Industries and Regions South Australia
  51. Queensland Building and Construction Commission
  52. Racing and Wagering Western Australia
  53. Racing NSW
  54. Racing Queensland
  55. Roads and Maritime Services NSW
  56. RSPCA - VIC
  57. State Revenue Office -- VIC
  58. Taxi Services Commission -- VIC
  59. [Redacted]
  60. RevenueSA
  61. Victorian WorkSafe Authority

Updated on January 19 at 11:55 a.m. AEDT: Included comment from Attorney-General's Department.