A bill that was passed in 2015 by the Australian Federal Government that makes it compulsory for descriptive browsing data (or metadata) to be retained by internet service providers and telephone companies took effect this month. The new law forces Australia-based companies like Telstra and Optus to retain the metadata they collect about their users for at least two years without the option to opt out. As part of the legislation, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) will be able to easily access all metadata in the name of national security.
The law will be in effect until 2019 when it will be reviewed by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security to assess its effectiveness and necessity.
Simply put, metadata is data that provides information about other data. For example, when you take a picture on your smartphone, there are data tags that collect information like focal length, camera type, phone type, date and time taken, exposure, flash setting, and more. This data can then be extracted by anyone who may be interested in find out more about a user.
Why should you care about these bits of data attached to your photo, you ask? Thanks to the metadata collected from a simple photo, a third party can know that you were on Bondi Beach in Sydney at 7:30PM on May 31st using your Apple iPhone 7 to take a photo of the ocean. And that’s just from data collected from one photo! Imagine this kind of metadata being pulled from everything else you do online.
What Metadata Will Be Saved?
The Australian government specified six areas of data that will be saved:
- The name, address, phone number, email, and IP address of individuals.
- The user information of any account placing a phone call, sending an SMS message, voicemail, or email.
- The destination of any communication, excluding internet browsing history.
- The date, time, and duration of telephone and internet communications
- The types of communications and internet services used.
- The physical location from which a communication is made.
Why It Matters
The kind of indiscriminate data collection mandated by this new law sets a dangerous precedent in that it allows the government to collect information about every citizen, guilty of a crime or not, to use for whatever purpose they deem necessary. This data could be compromised by outsiders and could harm ordinary citizens, especially if it is kept on a national database.
It is also important to understand that with the law does not come a sufficient authorization process to keep the government, and authorities working on behalf of the government, from misusing the information. This increases the odds that this data will be misused by higher-ups who won’t face accountability for the malfeasance.
What Can Australian Citizens Do?
If you live in Australia, the best way to fight back against this kind of impropriety is to install a virtual private network (VPN) on all of your devices. A VPN is a virtual extension of your network that tunnels your data through a private network, preventing your provider from seeing the information you send and receive online. A VPN can even encrypt your data, guaranteeing it will never be seen by anyone who shouldn’t be seeing it.
VPN use in Australia has skyrocketed since 2015. When the law was first passed there was a 500% increase in VPN subscriptions in the Australian market. Since then, VPNs have increased in popularity in the country and public knowledge continues to grow.
“But I Have Nothing To Hide”
This kind of thinking is typical for individuals who believe that because they are not doing anything wrong, they don’t need to block their online activities from outsiders. But it is for that very reason that they should be using services like VPNs! Additionally, the wholesale collection of private metadata sets a dangerous precedent that could be expanded into other areas of your life with greater ease, now that the foundations have been laid.
Check out our list of the six best VPN services of 2017 to begin protecting yourself today.