A Senate committee is investigating a proposal to force internet service providers to store for two years every email sent, website visited and communication undertaken by their customers.
The idea, which originated with the previous government but is lingering, is to replicate for the internet what police have long enjoyed with respect to telephone calls - access to records of who we called and when.
Telephone companies retain call records in order to bill us. But this is not the case with records of internet activity. This proposal would require the creation of giant new databases, many times larger and more revealing than telephone records. Most Australians make at most a few calls a day, but we send and receive dozens of emails and visit hundreds of websites. Many use the internet for everything from banking to researching health concerns and chatting with secret lovers.
The proposal also calls for each internet provider to be responsible for keeping these vast new information archives secure, at their own expense.
The sole purpose of retaining the data is to ensure it is available in case authorities want to look at it later. The law enforcement and security agencies are all in favour, arguing it is required to keep us ahead of terrorists, spies and organised crime.
While the proposal under consideration is for the retention of metadata, or details of who was contacted and when, some have called for the content of phone conversations, emails and browsing history to be stored as well. The corporate regulator, ASIC, argued that this is needed to investigate insider trading and Ponzi schemes. The ACCC and Australian Customs and Border Protection Service made similar claims.
At the same time, proposals by internet providers to encrypt all internet data to protect the privacy of their customers have been met with howls of outrage from the same authorities, on the basis that it will make it more difficult to pry.
This issue has the potential to redefine the relationship between those in authority and the people they are supposed to serve. Liberal democracies are not usually comfortable giving government bureaucrats more power merely because they ask for it. And it's a safe bet that even if access to the data is initially limited, it won't remain so. Already, access to telephone records is available to the Tax Office and organisations such as the RSPCA, Australia Post and local councils without a warrant. Around 330,000 requests for telephone data were made in the 2012-13 year.
It is likely the idea for data retention came from Europe, but its record there is poor. Germany's parliamentary research unit surveyed European crime statistics between 2005 and 2010 and found no evidence to suggest data retention was helping solve crimes, and in April the European Court of Justice declared it invalid.
What the proposal indicates is that our authorities view ordinary people as criminals in waiting. The same thinking has in the past led to proposals for a national identify card to prove we officially exist, or a national fingerprint or DNA database so we can be tracked down when we inevitably offend.
What seems to be forgotten is that it is the authorities that pose the greatest threat to our freedom, not criminals and terrorists, and that they are ones that should be closely monitored.
For police to so strongly support this additional power suggests attitudes are far removed from Peel's Principles of Policing, where the police are the public and the public are the police. ASIO's claim that it is justified because of Edward Snowdon's exposure of massive US government encroachment on privacy is Orwellian. And the claim by our secret police, the Australian Crime Commission, that not having the data is equivalent to having two hands tied behind its back, suggests it is currently ineffectual and could be abolished.
It is high time the police and security agencies rediscovered their status as public servants, not public masters, and returned to professional police work. It is legitimate to require the data of suspects to be preserved, subject to appropriate oversight, just as with traditional phone tapping, but not to treat every Australian as a potential criminal.
The Liberal Democrats are strongly opposed to any loss of liberty at the hands of the government and its agencies, no matter what justification is offered. As Senator, I will strongly resist this and any similar proposals.