Why the Abbott government hasn’t abandoned their incredibly unpopular metadata policy yet is beyond me. Nearly all other developed nations that have pursued such a policy have abandoned it, mostly because attempting to pass something like this is akin to committing political suicide. Worse still in their attempts to defend the policy from its critics the Abbott government has resorted to tactics and sensationalist rhetoric, none of which has any bearing on the underlying issues that this policy faces. Top this off with a cost estimation that seems to be based on back of the napkin math and you’ve got a recipe for bad legislation that will likely be implemented poorly and at a great cost to all Australian citizens.
Conceptually the idea is simple: the government wants to mandate that all ISPs and communications providers keep all metadata they generate for a period of 2 years. Initially this was sold as not being an increase in the power that authorities had however that idea is incredibly misleading as it greatly increases their ability to exercise that power. Worse still obtaining access to metadata doesn’t require a warrant and isn’t just the realm of law enforcement or intelligence agencies as people on local councils can obtain this data. Suffice to say that the gathering and retention of this data is a massive invasion of the privacy that the general public expects to have from its government and that is exactly why nearly all developed nations have dropped such policies before they’ve been implemented.
As expected the usual tropes for these kinds of policies have been trotted out, initially under the guise of a requirement for national security. I’d concede that point if it wasn’t for the fact that mass surveillance has not proved to be effective in combating terrorism, something which the critics of the policy were quick to point out. The rhetoric has then shifted away from national security to local security with Abbott saying that the metadata will help them track down peadophiles and child traffickers. Suffice to say if surveillance of this nature doesn’t help at a national level then I highly doubt its effectiveness at the lower levels and “think of the children” arguments like this are nothing more than an appeal to emotion.
Yesterday Abbott was pressed to give some hard figures on just how much this scheme would end up costing and he retorted with the rather ineloquent quip that it would be an “explosion in an unsolved crime“. When pressed the figure he gave was $300 million, estimated to be less than 1% of the total $40 billion that the entire telecommunications sector is estimated to be worth. That figure has apparently been sourced from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) however the details of that figure have not been made public. In all honesty I cannot see how that figure can be accurate given the amount of data we’re talking about and the retention times required.
To put it in perspective Australians consumed something on the order of 1 Exabyte in 6 months up to June last year which is a 50% increase on the year previous. The amount of metadata on that data would be a fraction of that and, taking the same 1% liberty that Abbott seems intent on using, you get something like 50 Petabytes worth of storage required. Couple that with the fact that it won’t be stored in one place (negating economies of scale), the infrastructure requirements to provide access to it and the personnel required to fullfil requests and that $300 million figure starts to look quite shakey. Indeed the Communications Alliance in Australia has estimated it to be between $500 million and $700 million which casts doubt over how accurate Abbott’s lowball figure is.
Honestly this legislation stinks no matter which way you cut it and the rhetoric that the incumbent government has been using to defend it speaks directly to that. These policies are just simply not effective in what they set out to achieve and the only tangible result we’ll ever see from them will be an increased cost to accessing the Internet and a reduction in the expectation of privacy. I do hope Abbott keeps harping on about it though as the more he talks the more it seems likely that we’ll be able to cement the One Term Tony phrase in the history books.
If you’re of voting age then you’re likely aware of the rhetoric that surrounds our two major political parties. Typically Labor is cast as a party that favours spending with the Liberals being more conservative (and usually “more responsible”). These stereotypes aren’t without merit however as the previous incarnations of both governments ran very close to those lines although the global circumstances in which both of them existed were radically different. Indeed the reason why Australia was one of the few developed countries to avoid a recession during the Global Financial Crisis and the follow Eurozone Crisis was due to the stimulus programs they engaged. However Australians, for one reason or another, seem to prefer our government run a surplus whenever possible and last night’s budget is setting them up for just that.
Hockey and Abbott had been priming us for bad news since talk of the budget first started circulating, noting that we’d all have to pay our fair share in order to correct the “budget emergency”. The line items in the budget show pretty much everyone losing out (with a few notable exceptions including high income earners, private sector business and mining) so the rumors were well founded. You’d be hard pressed to find any regular Australian that was happy with the budget but the consensus from the wider press seems to be that it’s economically sound and will eventually lead us to surplus. As you can probably guess I’m not a fan of it myself as it feels like getting to a surplus, mostly through cutting expenditure, is only being done for the sake of having a surplus.
Australia’s budget isn’t like your home budget where running a deficit for a couple years would likely see you sink into financial ruin. As long as a government is able to make repayments on its debt and is sensible about deficit spending it’s typically not an issue. Indeed when compared to the rest of the world Australia’s debt to GDP ratio is extremely low, well below that of many other countries (including Germany) that are considered fiscally responsible. Thus the talk of a “budget emergency” is built upon a base of incorrect assumptions, ones which have resulted in a budget that hits everyone and hits those hardest who are least able to afford it.
In all honesty it seems like a long term play, one that the current government can take some political pain on now so that when the next election rolls around they can point to the budget and say “Look at this magnificent surplus”. Sure the current projections don’t have that happening for 4 years but this is the first budget of 3 and there’s the real possibility that the next budget will be in the same vein. That is what worries me as whilst running a surplus sounds good the cuts made to get to it are likely to be far more destructive than the small amount of debt required to maintain them.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out with the wider public as this was what the majority of Australians wanted but I’m sure many of them did not expect it to come and slap them in the face like this. The true test will be to see if the political pain is only short term as I believe that’s what the Liberal’s current strategy is betting upon. Abbott is already having a tough enough time as it is with people quickly realising he’s great in opposition but not so in power. Still the Australian public seems to have a short memory and a shiny surplus in 3 years might be enough to convince everyone of the Liberal’s economic credentials (and not the lack thereof).
I’ve been working in public sector IT for the better part of 7 years now, starting off as a lowly help desk operator and working my way up through the ranks to the senior technical consultant position I find myself in today. I’m not telling you this to brag (indeed I don’t believe I’m completely unique in this regard) rather I want to impress upon you the level of familiarity I have when it comes to government IT systems. I’ve worked in departments ranging from mere hundreds of employees to the biggest public service organisation that exists within Australia. So when I say Tony Abbott’s office isn’t giving us the full story on this whole Peter Slipper incident and the subsequent time zone argument they used to defend their position you’ll know that I’m not just making stuff up.
For reference his whole argument has been thoroughly debunked by Sortius in his brilliant 10 hours of bullshit where he shows that the document has had its date modified to show a 10 hour discrepancy. Back when it was first published he was just going off public information but recent updates to the post have seen him get his hands on the original press release with an unmodified date on them, showing that the press release was indeed drafted the night before. You’d think that’d be the last of it (and indeed if it was I would’ve simply tweeted it again) however the Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS) has gone on record saying that they have identified a problem with the time stamps on the files in question and have backed up Abbott’s side of the story.
Reporters have since been granted access to the PC and shown similar files which seem to suffer the same Zulu time zone problem that apparently plagues the press release in question. What wasn’t investigated was whether or not files created in the way that Sortius has shown suffer from the same issue, I.E. is there an on-going technical issue with that particular computer or are those files the result of the same kind of tampering that the press release appears to have undergone. That would go some way to explaining what’s going on here but it doesn’t explain why the time stamp shows a Zulu time zone which Microsoft word isn’t capable of producing.
Indeed doing a little research for myself shows that PDFs created from Microsoft Word’s PDF creator plugin will always show created/modified dates that are more or less identical and reflect the current time it was created (not the time when the original word document was created). If we’re to believe that there was some problem with the PC that caused the Z to appear it follows that it should have been the same for both the created date and the modified date. The fact that there’s a discrepancy gives credence to the idea that the PDF was first created using the Word PDF exporter and then modified afterwards using another program. The original document, the one shown in the final update from Sortius, shows some differences in created/modified times however it appears that was created using the PDFMaker Plugin for Word and then later modified in Adobe Distiller (not the same way as the metadata in the modified press release indicates).
Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that Abbott was aware of this information but it does implicate that someone working for him did. In attempting to track down just who it was who created the PDF I came across 2 probable people (one person who I think works at DPS and a Brisbane based ghost writer) but I wasn’t able to verify it was actually one or the other. Whoever did write it would be able to provide some insights into this whole thing but it’s unlikely that they’ll ever come forward, especially considering the fact that they would’ve been working for Abbott at the time (and may still be).
All of this points in the direction that something is going on over there and that further investigation is definitely warranted. I know there’s several other things I could do to either verify or debunk this theory completely should I have more open access to said system but I doubt we’ll get anything more than the guided tour that was given to the ABC journalists already. If I still had people I knew working at DPS you can be assured that I’d get the full story from them but alas, I came up dry on this one. Sortius is still on the case though and I’m very interested to see what DPS has to say about the current discrepancies and will keep you posted on the progress.
Once something is ingrained in the public’s mind it becomes increasingly difficult to convince them of the opposite idea. Initial thoughts turn into innate biases and anecdotal evidence becomes undeniable fact. I can’t really put the whole blame on the public themselves since we don’t all spend the hours required to fact check everything so some of the blame rests with the media and their reporting of such things. One of these such things is the link between mobile phones and cancer which, despite a fair body of evidence to the contrary, still manages to rear its ugly head at the dinner table. Even with evidence like this people will still choose to believe the anecdotes over fact:
A very large, 30-year study of just about everyone in Scandinavia shows no link between mobile phone use and brain tumours, researchers reported on Thursday.
Even though mobile telephone use soared in the 1990s and afterward, brain tumours did not become any more common during this time, the researchers reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
Some activist groups and a few researchers have raised concerns about a link between mobile phones and several kinds of cancer, including brain tumours, although years of research have failed to establish a connection.
What interests me the most about this is that although people will still spout things like “cell phones cause cancer” they will still go ahead and use them day after day. I think the main reason behind this is the fact that although there might be a chance that it does increase your risk of cancer (most of the studies still conclude that the 20~30 year usage range needs further studies) it is so low that it doesn’t really affect them. The same can be said for smoking and unhealthy eating since for the most part the damage is so low and slow that you don’t notice it building up on you. This was very true with cigarettes 50 years ago when doctors would recommend them to their patients, not knowing the long term health problems the addictions would incur. The mental gymnastics people employ for their self destructive habits is quite amazing sometimes.
The real issue here is one of education since the method of communication (mass media et al) with the public at large is not particularly suited towards this kind of critical thinking. This has become quite apparently recently with the whole Emissions Trading Scheme legislation which, thanks to an almost soap opera-esque leadership spill in the Liberal party, has pushed Tony Abbott and his bizarre ideals on climate change. Right now it appears he’s attempting to make it look like the Rudd government is trying to tax us all for no appreciable benefit, when he can do the same for basically free. Trying to find some solid information on his policy leads me to mostly dead ends but the few articles I could find on it would see Abbott attempt massive carbon sequestering, something which does not solve the underlying problem. Let’s also not forget that Abbott has also promoted a climate change denier in the form of Nick Minchin (to call him a skeptic is completely misleading), a man who 14 years ago was a second hand smoke “skeptic”. He’s right up there with the other loonies who believe that this whole carbon thing is an attempt to deindustrialize the western world (and bring in communism, that’s right climate change is a COMMUNIST CONSPIRACY!!). You can see why I’m worried about these people pushing their views on the wider public of Australia, they’re disregarding all evidence in favour of pushing party lines.
I’m just glad that they’ll go down in flames come the next election .
Whilst there are many great educational and skeptical resources available out there most of them aren’t really targetted at the everyman. Skeptics et al have a terrible habit of preaching to the choir
and their rhetoric leaves much to be desired. When your target audience thinks that Ask Bossy is good lunchtime reading you’ve got to change your game plan to match, and that’s a process that many of us (myself included) find quite hard to do. The day that skepticism becomes sexy and cool is the day that I stop writing on the subject, since everyone will be doing my work for me.
Or maybe the ABC just needs to move Media Watch to primetime.