Metadata is information about an object or resource that describes characteristics such as content, quality, format, location and contact information. It can be used to describe physical items as well as digital items such as documents, audio-visual files, images and datasets.
More government agencies are accessing people’s phone and internet records than originally envisaged, in what critics are describing as “authority creep”.
Controversial laws which came into force last year compel telecommunications companies to retain metadata on their customers, including information on who you call or text, where you make calls from, and who you send emails to.
To allay privacy concerns, access to the metadata was limited to 22 specific police and intelligence agencies, such as the Australian Federal Police, ASIO and state police forces.
But a parliamentary hearing has been told that number has blown out.
- Access to metadata was initially restricted to 22 government agencies, but state-based agencies have blown that figure out
- Because they are accessing metadata and not content of communications, no warrant is required
- It is not known how many agencies are now able to request metadata
What’s in metadata?
In the digital age, how much of your life is actually private? To find out, ABC reporter Will Ockenden got access to his metadata. This is what that data looks like.
The dataset Will Ockenden received from Telstra included:
- Who he called and texted (in our dataset, exact phone numbers have been hidden and replaced by unique identifying codes).
- How long each phone call lasted.
- The time of the communication.
- The location of the cell tower contacted when outgoing calls were initiated.
- The location of the cell tower contacted for SMS and internet connections.
Other data that is to be kept by telcos and internet providers under data retention laws – but which is not included in the dataset released to Will – includes but is not limited to:
- Details of incoming phone calls.
- The time, date, size and recipients of emails sent using your ISP’s email service (i.e. not via webmail services such as Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail).
- The file type and size of any attachments sent or received with emails, when using your ISP’s email service.
- Details about internet usage including how much bandwidth the internet service provides.
What metadata reveals
Going into this project, I knew that many parts of my life over the last year would be laid out clearly. That happened as expected. However, I wasn’t expecting such a high level of detail. It’s plain from the hundreds of responses we received that telecommunications metadata can reveal a significant amount of detail – even when it’s collected at a suburb level.
The Australian Federal Police, in a submission to the Senate inquiry into the metadata retention legislation, wrote ‘the analysis of telecommunications … consistently provides an invaluable intelligence capability, including helping identify individuals of concern without having to resort to more privacy instructive measures such as interception of communication.
While it is true the interception of communications is more intrusive than just metadata, interception requires a warrant. Government agencies do not require a warrant for metadata.
Although some of this story dates back 3 years nothing has changed – it’s probably worse.