The Guardian February 21, 2001


Anger at plundered phone records

by Brendan Nicholson

Watchdog groups are demanding urgent changes to a system that last year 
allowed police and other government agencies to access confidential phone 
records on more than a million occasions without search warrants.

The Australian Communications Authority has confirmed that 
telecommunications companies passed on information to law-enforcement and 
other government agencies 998,548 times in 1999-2000  a move condemned as 
wholesale invasion of privacy.

The disclosures, 98 per cent of the which were made by either Telstra, 
Cable and Wireless Optus or Vodafone, were made at a rate of more than 
19,000 a week, or nearly 4000 on any working day.

The extraordinary access to phone records does not include information 
given to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, which is 
believed to be substantial and which the agency is not obliged to disclose.

The information revealed included: telephone accounts; numbers dialled; the 
time calls were made and their duration; and use of the Internet.

This process is separate from telephone interception, or phone tapping, 
which has also increased dramatically in the past three years, but which 
requires law-enforcement officers to obtain a warrant.

The scant information about the process was released by the communications 
authority in a written answer to a question asked by the Federal Opposition 
during Senate hearings.

But the ease and frequency with which police and other agencies are combing 
through phone records triggered serious concerns about the system's lack of 
privacy safeguards.

Mr Chris Maxwell, QC, President of Liberty Victory, the Victorian Council 
for Civil Liberties, said the figures revealed a wholesale invasion of 
privacy. "People's phone records are their private affair. No one else 
should have access to them except in exceptional circumstances.

"Police access to phone records has apparently become a matter of routine."

Mr Maxwell said the Federal Government should take action immediately to 
find how and why this had occurred and to change the rules so that access 
was limited to cases of serious crime.

"The stringent requirements for telephone tapping warrants would provide a 
good starting point", Mr Maxwell said.

Tim Dixon, chairman of the Australian Privacy Foundation, set up in 
response to public concerns about the Australia Card in 1987, said a 
colossal amount of information was being collected.

"And in any practical sense there is no monitoring and no auditing or 
assessment of whether or not those inquiries are relevant.

"It sounds as though they are using it as an ordinary person uses directory 
service."

Mr Dixon suggested that an ombudsman could audit the process by randomly 
selecting 1000 examples of access to information and examining why it was 
sought and whether it was justified.

"Having a mechanism like that in place would give you much greater 
assurance that there will be some accountability and there won't be 
inappropriate use," he said.

"But at the moment there is no mechanism like that, and given the enormous 
number of occasions when information is being obtained I can't imagine that 
there is any restraint on using those powers.

"It could clearly be abused and none of us would know."

Democrats privacy spokeswoman Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja said she was 
astounded that such a vast amount of information was being handed over 
without adequate safeguards.

She said that when the power to access telecommunications information 
without a warrant was granted, the intention was clearly that it be used to 
combat major crime.

Exactly who oversees the process is unclear, with Attorney-General Daryl 
Williams' office referring inquiries to Communications Minister Richard 
Alston, and Senator Alston's office referring them back to Mr Williams.

The Telecommunications Act of 1997 allows telecommunications companies to 
release information to federal and state law-enforcement agencies without 
seeing a warrant if the agencies satisfy them that disclosure is 
"reasonably necessary".

Labor frontbencher Laurie Brereton said it was clear from the massive 
number of disclosures that access to records was "a matter of casual and 
routine procedure".

The system could also allow whistleblowers to be hunted down and 
persecuted, he said.

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