Australians value data retention over privacy: ANU research

​When it comes to the war on terror, most Australians support data retention, saying the government should do more to protect national security.

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Claire Reilly
2 min read

Two years after mandatory data retention laws were first introduced to Parliament amid outcries from privacy experts and civil liberties advocates, it now seems Australians are less concerned about privacy than many opponents of data retention would have expected, or hoped.

According to new research conducted by ANU, the majority of Australians are in favour of mandatory data retention, with two thirds of the population saying the collection of metadata is justified to combat terrorism.

What's more, almost half the population says the government hasn't gone far enough to protect national security.

The ANU poll on Attitudes to National Security surveyed 1,200 Australians and found that 28 percent thought the government had gone "too far in restricting the average person's civil liberties," compared to 46 percent who said it had not gone far enough.

Similarly, 67 percent said data retention laws were "justi­fied as part of the effort to combat terrorism and protect national security," while only 33 percent said the laws violated citizens' privacy.

Speaking about the research, ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt, said maintaining national security in an age of terrorism meant being asked to "relinquish certain individual rights and liberties in the name of public safety." And according to Schmidt, Australians are more than happy to do so.

"Even when posed as a trade-off between an individual's rights and the protection of national security, the Australians surveyed express support for freedom-limiting policies in the fight against terrorism," he said.

But there's still no clear indication as to whether the data that telcos and internet service providers are now required to keep for two years is being used to fight terrorism.

The Attorney-General's Department, which tracks the way this data is accessed and used by law enforcement, does not release statistics on the types of crimes investigated using metadata.

But UNSW academic Dr. Rob Nicholls says that if other kinds of police surveillance and communications access is used as a guide, terrorism barely figures in the equation.

According to Dr. Nicholls' research, the vast majority of telecommunications data accessed by police and law enforcement using a warrant is for policing drug crime. Terrorism and national security figure in relatively few applications for telecommunications access warrants.

But regardless of how this metadata is being used, Australians are happy that it's being collected.

When asked about the government's collection of telephone and internet data as part of "counter-terrorism efforts," 69 percent of Australians were in favour (20 percent strongly approved, 49 percent approved).

It seems that 18 months after data retention passed into law, it's received the tick of approval from the public.