What is metadata and why is the government collecting it?

The stored records will contain metadata, which is essentially data about data. It's the who, when, where and how of the message, not the what. In other words, it's the identity of a subscriber and the source, destination, date, time, duration and type of communication, but none of the content. So while the government will be able to, on request, access information about a message they won't be able to see what it actually says.

In their own words:

"For internet activity, metadata is information such as an email address and when it was sent—not the subject line of an email or its content. The Australian Government is not requiring industry to retain a person’s web-browsing history or any data that may amount to a person’s web-browsing history."

Social media sites are also exempt from the data retention laws, and the metadata won't be used for Copyright Infringement cases.

Under the new laws, approximately 85 security and policing agencies will be able to access up to two years of an individual's stored metadata. 

But why do they need the data to be retained in the first place? That brings us back to the 'on request' part of that statement: the government claim they aren't going to be trawling through your metadata without reason. They say that the records will only be accessed as part of a serious criminal or national security investigation. Telecommunications companies retaining less data and keeping it for a shorter time degrades the investigative capabilities of law enforcement and security agencies and, in some cases, has prevented serious criminals from being brought to justice.

As listed on their FAQ page:

"Of particular importance to investigations is the IP address allocated to a user’s device (eg mobile phone or computer) by their internet service provider. This is a critical piece of data for law enforcement and security agencies because it enables them to match a device to a name. For example, an overseas police service may find a computer server that provides child pornography and was accessed by IP addresses in Australia. In this case, the Australian Federal Police would seek information about which customer was using that particular IP addresses at that particular time."

Phone and internet providers are required to keep the metadata secure through encryption, preventing unauthorised access.

So, by all official recounts, if you're not partaking in criminal activity, you don't have to worry about the data retention laws.

You can read more about public reception of the laws at the Sydney Morning Herald.

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