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.