Could Your Metadata Get You Killed? It Has for Some

Editor’s Note: Port Phillip Publishing is taking a short break for the holidays. We will be returning to our posts on 4 January, 2016. While our editors enjoy a few days off with friends and family, we thought you may enjoy reading some of their vintage pieces from 2015. You’ll see the date that these articles were originally published up top. Facts and figures have not been updated. Happy holidays.

The following article was first published in Money Morning on 21 October 2015.

 Could Your Metadata Get You Killed? It Has for Some

The intention behind the proposed reform is to allow law enforcement agencies to continue investigating crime in light of new technologies

The loss of this capability would be a major blow to our law enforcement agencies and to Australia’s national security.’

Nicola Roxton, Former member of
The House of Representatives (2012)

This was the foundation for Australia’s metadata retention laws. An idea that the Gillard government created and that the Turnbull government has passed to become law.

This means it is now 100% legal for the Australian government to have access to your metadata. This is information your service provider must keep for at least two years. And it includes;

  • Any subscriber details for services including names, addresses, contact details and payment information
  • The source and destination of communications
  • The date, time and duration of a communication
  • The type of communication or service used — SMS, voice, email, chat, ADSL, WiFi, VoIP, etc.
  • The location of equipment used in connection with a communication

My point today isn’t to about whether or not this is right. Clearly I think the data retention scheme is wrong. It’s a gross invasion of privacy. And if anything else it’s the government saying, ‘guilty until proven innocent’.

The issue at stake here is how useful is this metadata?

The government will have you believe one thing. But thanks to a US whistleblower perhaps metadata isn’t useful at all. In fact it might even lead to wrongful death.

What’s the government’s argument?

Why do they even want all this data? As Nicola Roxton made note back in 2012 it’s to assist law enforcement. It’s a matter for ‘national security’.

But how beneficial is metadata?

In the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014 (Cth) there’s specific reference to the benefits of metadata.

A European investigation provides an example of the difference data retention can make–in a major Europol child exploitation investigation UK investigators, with the advantage of retained data, identified 240 out of 371 suspects in their jurisdiction (almost 65%) securing 121 convictions; Germany on the other hand, without data retention, identified less than 2% (7 out of 377 suspects) and convicted none.

Going on that basis you’d make a pretty good case as to why the law exists.

But that’s one example. And perhaps the most damning reason to not have metadata laws is the most recent and disturbing example from the US.

Drone wars

You probably know about Edward Snowden by now. He’s the man who leaked reams of information about the US spying program.

It’s still creating shockwaves around the world with the flagrant abuse of power by US government agents.

But you might not have heard about ‘Snowden Two’.

There’s another whistleblower from deep within the US government. And a whole new can of worms is now open. This time it’s about the covert practices of the US drone strike programs.

For now this whistleblower is ‘Snowden Two’ to protect his or her safety. The Intercept cannot release his or her name. After all, seeing what the real Snowden had to go through, why would you?

These ‘Drone Papers’ show how the US relies on sketchy metadata in order to ‘find, fix, finish’ HVIs (High Value Individuals).

Speaking exclusively to The Intercept, the whistleblower explained,

The [drone papers] acknowledge that using metadata from phones and computers, as well as communications intercepts, is an inferior method of finding and finishing targeted people. They described SIGINT capabilities in these unconventional battlefields as “poor” and “limited.” Yet such collection, much of it provided by foreign partners, accounted for more than half the intelligence used to track potential kills in Yemen and Somalia.’

The whistleblower continued,

‘It’s stunning the number of instances when [metadata] selectors are misattributed to certain people. And it isn’t until several months or years later that you all of a sudden realize that the entire time you thought you were going after this really hot target, you wind up realizing it was his mother’s phone the whole time.’

It’s this kind of error factor that completely destroys the argument for metadata retention. It is unreliable. They can’t even be 100% sure it’s the right target.

Yet the US government makes kill orders using this method. It makes you wonder what decisions the Australian government makes with their metadata?

Probably not drone strikes. But if it’s for the prevention of ‘acts of terror’ just how reliable is the information they’re using?

It’s a two-factor problem. How they obtain this information is dubious at best. But it’s how they use and rely on the data you should really question.

Add to the mix the logistical nightmare of just getting and storing the information. Your service provider has to hold onto your metadata and put it somewhere. And at any given moment the government can ask for it.

That means they have to retrieve it, filter it and send it. That creates headaches for almost every service provider in the country. But as far as the government is concerned it’s the cost of being at war. And we are at war. With our own government. Because they want nothing more than to capture everything they can about you and hold onto it forever — just in case.

Sam Volkering,

Editor, Australian Small-Cap Investigator

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Sam Volkering
Sam is Editor for Money Morning and it's small-cap and technology analyst. He spends his time hunting down the most exciting stocks on the planets, whether they’re potential-packed volatile small-caps or tech firms transforming our future through cutting-edge technologies. You can find more of Sam’s work over at Australian Small-Cap Investigator, where he shares the best small-cap stocks he finds on the ASX, or at Revolutionary Tech Investor where he reveals the latest breakthrough tech investment he’s discovered.

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