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​Government looks to track Australians' online browsing history

Prime Minister Abbott has indicated data retention reforms could now require ISPs to track Australians' browsing history, and be used for "crime fighting more generally".

Mark Nolan/Getty Images

After compulsory data retention laws were given by the Federal Government's National Security Committee, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has shed light on what customer data ISPs will be required to track and retain under the new legislation.

Prime Minister Abbott gave the clearest indication yet that data retention would involve tracking of browsing history, saying metadata would include details of "the sites you're visiting" and "where you've been" on the internet.

Speaking on national television a day after the sweeping national intelligence reforms were announced, the Prime Minister said it was important to clarify "what this so-called metadata is" and what ISPs would be required to retain.

"It's not the content of the letter, it's what's on the envelope," he said, offering a metaphor that he said "most Australians could understand". He continued:

It's not what you're doing on the internet, it's the sites you're visiting. It's not the content, it's just where you've been.

If you look at what's on the front of the envelope, it's the person you've sent it to, it's the person sending it, it's the date and it's the place that it's posted from. This is information which, as I understand it, is typically already kept by the internet providers.

However, iiNet chief regulatory officer Steve Dalby recently told a Senate hearing on data retention that the ISP has not kept data it does not need to, and that "suggesting that it is no big deal because carriers are already doing it, when carriers are not doing it, is misleading".

Similarly, while a 'from' and 'to' address on an envelope may be analogous to the caller and recipient of a phone call, Dalby argued that metadata is a far broader term in the online space. Speaking at the Senate hearing, he said an envelope was a "poor analogy" for "the complex, voluminous, often sensitive and private nature of the data sought" in this kind of scheme.

The difficulty with such a poor analogy is that it attempts to compare a piece of paper, the envelope, with a chain of events and multiple links to myriad other data, meticulously described and recorded.

In the case of Twitter, this may include who wrote the tweet, their biography, their location, when it was written, how many other tweets have been written on that user's account, where the author was when the tweet was posted, what time it was, whom it was sent to, where the author is normally based and, surprisingly in the case of Twitter, the 140 characters of the content of the tweet as well.

While the Government's data retention changes were announced as part of a suite of reforms to target terrorists and "monitor potential terrorist activity", Prime Minister Abbott has also indicated that retention of metadata could be used in more general law enforcement operations, not just for counter-terrorism measures.

"It's an absolutely vital weapon against crime fighting more generally," he said.