Inquiry into government access to internet and phone data announced

On 12 December the Senate announced an inquiry into the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979. The Act, among other things, allows for the interception and access of telecommunications data by Government agencies in certain circumstances. In some cases this means access by local governments and agencies to your personal data without a warrant, or indeed any judicial oversight.

There is a legitimate concern that the Act, originally drafted to capture data about fixed line telephone calls and potentially radio communications, is not appropriately adapted for our mobile using, internet reliant, social media driven lives. Once, a local government could only have obtained data about the time and length of a phone call from one house to another. These days they could possibly obtain your location, and time of use, for every sms, phone call, facebook update, as well as your ‘subscriber info’, which potentially includes religion, relationship status and favourite band.  The issue is that, while the law around accessing data hasn’t changed, what may be considered ‘telecommunications data’ has changed, expanding the amount of information that can be obtained and therefore arguably leading to greater invasions of privacy.

These issues became a matter of public concern when a media story ran last year revealing that data had been accessed more than 300,000 times in one year. Greens Senator, Scott Ludlum, introduced a draft bill in 2013 to attempt to fix some of the more egregious issues in the Act.  

People have until 27 of February to make a submission to the inquiry. There is no issues paper, nor are there any detailed terms of reference. The Senate has merely called for a comprehensive revision, with regard to the Australian Law Reform Commission’s 2008 report For Your Information: Australian Privacy Law and Practice report  and recommendations from the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security Legislation report of May 2013.

The ALRC in 2008 recommended that a review be initiated to consider whether the current system continues to be effective given technological developments, and changing community perceptions and expectations. The ALRC also put forward the idea of a public interest monitor to ensure the balance between privacy and other interests is maintained appropriately. The Parliamentary Committee has also made recommendations to ensure privacy is more adequately protected, including introducing a proportionality test for intercepting data and reducing the number of agencies who can access telecommunications data.

This review focuses primarily on the interception and use of data by government agencies. New laws are coming into effect in March 2014 that will place greater obligations on private organisations, such as google, to inform individuals when they are collecting data about you and what data they have.

Emily Christie is a lawyer seconded from DLA Piper to the Human Rights Law Centre.