Sydney councils are asking telecommunications companies to provide them with customers’ phone records to help them chase down fines and enforce minor infringements, including littering.
Telecommunications industry group Communications Alliance has revealed local councils were among more than 80 agencies that have made requests for metadata in the three years since the federal government attempted to restrict access to such records to law enforcement agencies.
Metadata includes email addresses, phone numbers, the amount of information in text messages and the times and places from which communications are sent, but not the actual content.
In 2015 the federal government passed legislation that required telecommunications companies to hold their customers’ metadata for two years so that it was available to police and intelligence agencies investigating serious crimes and terrorist threats.
To assauge concerns about civil liberties, it reduced the number of authorities that could access such information without a warrant from about 50 agencies to 22 law enforcement bodies.
However, Communications Alliance chief executive John Stanton told a parliamentary inquiry that state-based agencies were still able to obtain metadata under a clause of the Telecommunications Act that was inserted at the same time the Data Retention Act was passed.
A total of 84 organisations had sought the information from alliance members, including the Bankstown, Brisbane, Fairfield and Rockdale councils, state departments governing community services, fisheries and primary industry, Australia Post, the Australian Health Practitioners Regulation Agency and racing agencies. Including requests made to companies that were not members of the alliance, there were likely to be more.
“There’s not 20 organisations seeking metadata, there’s more than 100,” Mr Stanton said.
In one example, a local council attempted to use metadata to chase a litterbug, by asking a telecommunications carrier to report the location of calls by a man whose name was on an envelope dumped on the street.
“That’s a somewhat extreme example but that has happened in the past'” he said.
“What sort of organisation does the Australian public think ought to be able to access personal information? Do they want local councils to be able to chase up information about who they fine?”
Fairfield City Council said its requests for metadata were in relation to illegal dumping. Canterbury Bankstown Council said the former Bankstown council had made 10 metadata requests in a bid to place someone at the scene of an illegal dumping site after they had denied involvement. Bayside Council, which incorporates the former Rockdale Council, has been asked to comment.
The Australian Health Practitioners Regulation Agency said it had not made any requests since the data retention laws came into force, though it had previously done so to assist its investigations, “often in relation to contested allegations of inappropriate relationships between patients and practitioners”.
Law enforcement and spy agencies make about 300,000 requests for metadata per year, or 1000 per business day.
A freedom of information request filed by Electronic Frontiers Australia in 2015 found that 61 non-law enforcement agencies had made such requests.
Telecommunications providers did not necessarily disclose metadata for every request.
But Mr Stanton said they usually gave the organisation requesting the information the benefit of the doubt. “It’s not their job to interrogate the reasons for the request.”
Telecommunications industry group Communications Alliance disclosed the list to a parliamentary inquiry into the proposed expansion of police access to encrypted messages. It only includes requests made to members of the alliance.
Since April 2015, the following agencies have sought access to metadata from members of the Communications Alliance members:
- Australian Crime Commission
- Australian Border Force
- AFP ACT Policing
- AFP PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS
- Australian Tax Office
- Australia Post Corporate Security Group
- Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency
- BANKSTOWN CITY COUNCIL
- BRISBANE CITY COUNCIL
- CONSUMER & BUSINESS AFFAIRS – VIC
- Corrections Intelligence Group – NSW
- CRIME AND MISCONDUCT COMMISSION
- Department of Agriculture
- Department of Defence
- Department of Environment and Conservation WA
- DEPARTMENT OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, JOBS, TRANSPORT & RESOURCES
- DEPARTMENT OF IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION
- DEPT FAIR TRADING NSW
- DEPT FAIR TRADING-BRISBANE
- DEPT OF COMMERCE WA
- DEPT OF FAMILIES, HOUSING COMMUNITY SERVICES
- DIBP BRISBANE
- DIBP CANBERRA
- DIBP MELBOURNE
- DIBP QLD
- DIBP SYDNEY
- FAIRFIELD CITY COUNCIL
- FAIR WORK BUILDING AND CONSTRUCTION
- HEALTHCARE COMPLAINTS COMMISSIONS
- ICAC SYDNEY
- NSW CC
- NSW EPA
- NSW Office of State Revenue
- NSW Police
- NSW POLICE PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS
- NSW Government Trade, Investment, Resources and Energy
- NT POLICE
- OFFICE OF ENVIRONMENT & HERITAGE
- OFFICE OF STATE REVENUE NSW
- Police Integrity Commission – NSW
- PRIMARY INDUSTRIES AND RESOURCES SA
- PRIMARY INDUSTRIES NSW
- PRIMARY INDUSTRIES QLD
- PRIMARY INDUSTRIES VIC
- QLD Department of Fair Trading
- QLD TRANSPORT
- Queensland Police Service
- Racing Integrity VIC
- REGIONAL ILLEGAL DUMPING SQUAD
- Rockdale City Council
- SA FISHERIES
- SA ICAC
- SA POLICE ANTI CORRUPTION
- SA POLICE INTERNAL INVESTIGATION BRANCH
- SA POLICE STATE INTELLIGENCE
- TAS POLICE
- TAS POLICE INTERNAL INVESTIGATIONS
- Taxi Services Commission
- TRANSPORT ACCIDENT COMMISSION MELBOURNE
- VIC DEPARTMENT OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, JOBS, TRANSPORT AND RESOURCES
- VIC Department of Justice
- VIC Department of Health and Human Services
- VIC POLICE ETHICAL STANDARDS
- VIC INSTITUTE OF TEACHING
- VIC POLICE
- VIC Sheriff’s Offices
- WA CCC
- WA Department of Fair Trading
- WA FISHERIES
- WA POLICE STATE INTELLIGENCE DIVISION
- Work Safe VIC
- WORKPLACE HEALTH & SAFETY