Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce Data retention: what happens when bytes go missing?

Data retention: what happens when bytes go missing?

At this stage of the Australian government's clumsy effort to put data retention laws in place, it is clear that the public is not being told the whole truth. Or even a fraction of it.

When it comes to tripping over one's own incompetence, one can't find a better duo than Attorney-General George Brandis and — surprisingly — Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull. At times I find myself tending towards the explanation that Turnbull is making the blunders he is, simply because his heart is not in selling this legislation - which, deep down, he opposes – and he wants to make that point  clear.

The government's bungling has been written about from the day that Brandis started fumbling around to try and explain what metadata means. There's been a fair bit of commentary about it.

But on another front, there is certainly much more to say. And that is the matter of security.

A few days back, the government announced that it would introduce new laws, to stop companies from storing the metadata that is to be retained for two years under the proposed legislation, in places that are vulnerable to hackers. This is obviously a reaction to the statement by ISP iiNet that it will look for the cheapest data repository in China to store the retained data.

Pray, how does the government determine which place is vulnerable and which isn't? Is it planning to hire an whole army of technical staff to make this determination at a time when well-qualified and experienced folk are at a premium?

Or will it hire a bunch of callow MCSEs to go around and make judgments on this score? Since when did cost become an indicator of competence? If it were, you would expect a higher degree of competence from both Brandis and Turnbull, two of the better-paid people in the country.

Over the years, as more and more data has moved online, there have been reports from different parts of the world about data theft. More recently the incidents seem to have lessened.

There is one reason for this (and it isn't speculation). Most data theft these days is done with a view to making money – and personal data, such as that which Brandis and Turnbull propose to keep for two years, is prime material which will fetch a handy price. (Why, if Google could buy the whole lot quietly, the Australian government may be able to balance its budget sooner.)

Such data breaches are not publicised either by those who commit it or those who are at the receiving end. The person/people who stole the data want money and a quiet ransom note is all they send. The company concerned quietly pays up and keeps things hush-hush; if the incident were to become public, then that company's business would suffer greatly.

Hacking has, thus, become a very sophisticated activity. Banks have budgets to handle this threat, expenses which are filed away under various heads. But mum's the word as far as possible.

In this scenario, for the Australian government to mandate data retention, and allow the bits and bytes to be stored outside the country, is sheer lunacy. Turnbull has gone on the record, saying that data storage outside the country does not bother him. The Australian, more or less an official government mouthpiece, reported that he made the comments at a panel discussion.

If the government mandates that Australians' data - and metadata is just that, data - is to be stored at reputable institutions, then the cost will rise astronomically. And who pays that cost? If the government does so, then ultimately it will be you and I who will pay for it  Brandis and Turnbull live off our taxes. And if the ISP does, then it would make no difference at all, because it would be passed on to subscribers. Once again, that's you and I, gentle reader.

Either way, the mugs are the ordinary punters.

What happens to ISPs caught selling the data for their own gain? Oh, the government will introduce laws to take care of that too. In other words, one can go against the fundamental principle that one cannot legislate for everything and actually do so.

Why are locals so apathetic about the data retention proposal? Is it that they trust Brandis and Turnbull? It's difficult to think that anyone could be so dumb. Do they not understand what it means to live in a surveillance state?

Or could it be that they are too busy getting drunk, going to the races, and plonking their hard-earned at the nearest bookmaker, before washing down a pie with a litre of beer?

Sad to say, the typical Aussie, said to be someone who bites back when taken for a ride, has gone missing. As one hack put it, we are sleepwalking into another Stasi-like regime.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.