Request for records 'trivial'

IPSWICH City Council's recent warrantless request for metadata to prosecute illegal signage has been described as "one of the most trivial examples I have heard of" by Greens Senator Scott Ludlam.

Senator Ludlam, who chairs the multiparty committee inquiry into a review of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979, said the council's request was "a good case study of how pervasive warrantless metadata snooping actually is".

Council made six requests for metadata to Telstra in 2012-13 to acquire the names and address of four owners of mobile phone numbers that were on illegal signage, and successfully prosecuted all four.

There has been debate over what metadata is, and how much of it organisations such as council can access under the act.

Nigel Waters, the man who co-wrote the Australian Privacy Foundation's submission to a senate inquiry into a review of the act, said "technically they (councils) are allowed to get everything the other law enforcement agencies can get, which includes time and date of calls and the duration of calls, and all the other stuff".

But Cr Andrew Antoniolli said council would welcome telecommunications legislation that contained stricter guidelines on what level of metadata can be accessed by local councils.

In the case of the illegal signs, and in future cases, Cr Antoniolli said council had no interest in anything other than the name and phone numbers of the owners of mobile phone numbers.

"If…the federal government wishes to change the legislation to restrict access so it is limited to only name and address details for local government then so be it,' he said.

In a letter to the editor in today's QT, Ipswich City Council COE Jim Lindsay said that council officers accessing name and address details "are bound by the Code of Conduct under the Local Government Act which restricts them to accessing only such information as required to undertake their enforcement duties".

Senator Ludlam suggested it wasn't so much what council did, but whether they should have been able to do it that was the issue.

"If all they have done is gone after the owner of the handset or the particular subscriber…you wouldn't necessarily apply for a warrant for that," he said.

"Looking at the way the practice has been applied in the last decade, police didn't have to get a warrant to basically read the white pages that says which subscriber name is attached to that number.

"It would probably be over the top to force an agency to pull down a warrant to get subscriber information.

"But any agency that is charged with the protection of public revenue can access this (metadata) material which is why it lets local governments through the gate.

"It means there are effectively many hundreds of agencies that can get it, and the due process that attaches to that is very low.

"It is simply fill out some paperwork, give it to the phone company and they have to provide that information."

Senator Ludlam said a key issue was "how much information do (agencies) actually get and how much information is being sought".

"Because with the same piece of paperwork (council) could have applied for location details of the handset, where it does ratchet up the privacy impacts.

"With or without a warrant, a remarkably large number of people are able to fish around inside the telecommunications network identifying people.

He said there was a need to narrow the range of agencies that can access metadata without a warrant and raise the threshold of purposes for which they can.

"Everyone from the Attorney General (George Brandis) down has been trivialising metadata is pretty harmless stuff, and it can be.

"It can be as simple as one (piece of) data point subscriber information, as to who owns a particular account.

"But it can be thousands of data points that trace your movements and map your social network."

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