Telecommunications industry group Communications Alliance has revealed details of dozens of state and federal departments and agencies it claims are accessing so-called communications ‘metadata’.
The 2015 legislation that introduced the data retention regime authorised a list of “criminal law-enforcement agencies” to obtain warrant-free access to metadata. Those agencies included federal, state and territory police agencies, a number of anti-corruption bodies, Border Force, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission; and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
However, last month at the hearing of an inquiry into the government’s bill aimed at enhancing police access to encrypted communications services, Communications Alliance CEO John Stanton said that a significantly larger number of organisations were accessing information kept by telcos to meet their data retention obligations.
Stanton told the hearing that since the “trim-down” of agencies by the data retention legislation, “many state based agencies have come forward and started using their own state based powers to request metadata under Section 313 [of the Telecommunications Act]”.
There has been “some authority creep, I guess you might call it, in the period since the data retention regime came into place,” he said.
Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act is a broadly worded provision that requires telcos to “give officers and authorities of the Commonwealth and of the States and Territories such help as is reasonably necessary” for “enforcing the criminal law and laws imposing pecuniary penalties”, “assisting the enforcement of the criminal laws in force in a foreign country”, “protecting the public revenue”, and “safeguarding national security”.
In other cases, Communications Alliance says organisations have used Section 280 (1)(b) of the Telecommunications Act to request access to metadata. That section of the act allows information to be disclosed if “the disclosure or use is required or authorised by or under law”, and Communications Alliance says that it allows “agencies to use their own powers to seek access to such data”.
In a document submitted to the inquiry, Communications Alliance lists 81 entities that it says have used either or both of the sections to access data. (That figure includes in some cases separate functions of the same organisations, such as the Australian Federal Police’s ACT Policing wing as well as its Professional Standards group).
In addition to police agencies and other organisations listed in the data retention legislation, it includes Centrelink, the Australian Taxation Office, Australia Post’s Corporate Security Group, Workplace Health and Safety, Work Safe Victoria, the Taxi Services Commission and a number of local councils.
A spokesperson for the Department of Human Services flatly denied that Centrelink had accessed telecommunications metadata since the introduction of data retention.
“We have not made any such enquiries for access to metadata since 2015 when the legislation was amended,” a spokesperson said. “We conduct our fraud and compliance investigations within accordance to all relevant legislation.”
The spokesperson said the department has “no authority under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 to request metadata”.
Communications Alliance has been approached for comment.
Many of the organisations are those that previously accessed metadata before the government introduced the data retention law. When the legislation was introduced, cutting down on the number of organisations that could access the data without a warrant was used as a selling point by the government.
The full list submitted by Communications Alliance:
Australian Crime Commission
Australian Border Force
AFP ACT Policing
AFP PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS
Australian Tax Office
Australia Post Corporate Security Group
Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency
BANKSTOWN CITY COUNCIL
BRISBANE CITY COUNCIL
CONSUMER & BUSINESS AFFAIRS – VIC
Corrections Intelligence Group – NSW
CRIME AND MISCONDUCT COMMISSION
Department of Agriculture
Department of Defence
Department of Environment and Conservation WA
DEPARTMENT OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, JOBS, TRANSPORT & RESOURCES
DEPARTMENT OF IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION
DEPT FAIR TRADING NSW
DEPT FAIR TRADING-BRISBANE
DEPT OF COMMERCE WA
DEPT OF FAMILIES, HOUSING COMMUNITY SERVICES
FAIRFIELD CITY COUNCIL
FAIR WORK BUILDING AND CONSTRUCTION
HEALTHCARE COMPLAINTS COMMISSIONS
NSW Office of State Revenue
NSW POLICE PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS
NSW Government Trade, Investment, Resources and Energy
OFFICE OF ENVIRONMENT & HERITAGE
OFFICE OF STATE REVENUE NSW
Police Integrity Commission – NSW
PRIMARY INDUSTRIES AND RESOURCES SA
PRIMARY INDUSTRIES NSW
PRIMARY INDUSTRIES QLD
PRIMARY INDUSTRIES VIC
QLD Department of Fair Trading
Queensland Police Service
Racing Integrity VIC
REGIONAL ILLEGAL DUMPING SQUAD
Rockdale City Council
SA POLICE ANTI CORRUPTION
SA POLICE INTERNAL INVESTIGATION BRANCH
SA POLICE STATE INTELLIGENCE
TAS POLICE INTERNAL INVESTIGATIONS
Taxi Services Commission
TRANSPORT ACCIDENT COMMISSION MELBOURNE
VIC DEPARTMENT OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, JOBS, TRANSPORT AND RESOURCES
VIC Department of Justice
VIC Department of Health and Human Services
VIC POLICE ETHICAL STANDARDS
VIC INSTITUTE OF TEACHING
VIC Sheriff’s Offices
WA Department of Fair Trading
WA POLICE STATE INTELLIGENCE DIVISION
Work Safe VIC
WORKPLACE HEALTH & SAFETY
Updates: November 14 17:00 AEDT to clarify source of organisations listed.
November 14 20:00 AEDT to include Department of Human Services statement.