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.