Data retention is about policing drug crime, not terrorism

Data retention was once "vital" for national security, but new figures show metadata is used in drug investigations 10 times as much as in terrorism cases.

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Claire Reilly
3 min read

Two years ago, Australia was sold a mandatory data retention scheme on the back of "urgent" national security reforms.   

As politicians and the wider community entered fierce debate over the balance between privacy and security, the public was told that police access to metadata was vital to protect our country from the growing threat of terrorism.  

What we weren't told was that when the scheme came into force, metadata would overwhelmingly be used to police drug crime.  

The Attorney-General's Department has released its first report [PDF] into law enforcement access to metadata under Australia's new mandatory data retention scheme. And when it comes to national security, use of metadata to police drug crime outstrips its use for terrorism by a factor of more than 10 to one. 

In fact, if you're counting, terrorism comes in at number 17 in the top 20 hits of metadata uses by law enforcement since the new laws came into effect in October 2015. 

1. Illicit drug offences -- 57,166
2. Homicide -- 25,245
3. Miscellaneous -- 12,716
4. Robbery -- 11,795
5. Fraud -- 11,282
6. Theft -- 10,347
7. Abduction -- 10,047
8. Unlawful entry -- 9,521
9. Acts (injury) -- 9,480
10. Sexual assault -- 9,397
17. Terrorism offences -- 4,454

In the year ending June 2016, law enforcement were granted 333,980 authorisations for access to metadata. This included 220,175 authorisations for criminal investigations after the new data retention scheme came into effect -- a quarter of which were related to drug crime. 

That number seems mighty high, particularly when you recall the rhetoric that swirled around data retention a few years ago.

"[Metadata] is an absolutely crucial tool to the protection of Australia, particularly in the terrorism area," said former head of ASIO David Irvine in 2014.

In 2015, Attorney-General George Brandis said, "access to metadata is vital to investigate terrorism and organised crime," while former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said it was a "small price to pay" for freedom and to "protect our kids."

We heard a great deal about terrorism, paedophilia, even copyright infringement, but very little about drugs.

According to Dr. Rob Nicholls, senior lecturer in the UNSW Business School, the high ranking of drug crime investigations is not unexpected, considering it is "one of the major places where telephone metadata is actually beneficial in trying to solve crime.

"Whatever we say about the use of this data, it's drug offences that are the major issue," he said. "And that's fine. But why not just say so?"

The answer was clear to some in 2015 and is still clear now. 

"It's a lot easier to sell the public that this is a national security issue than it is to say to the parliament and the public, 'Actually what we want to do is get drugs off the street,'" said Nicholls. 

"The real issue is Australians have the right to be pissed off that politicians underestimate their intelligence."

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