It has been almost a year since then Attorney-General Nicola Roxon released a discussion paper suggesting the need for a mandatory data retention regime in Australia.
Since then, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has held an inquiry into the proposals contained in that document. I appeared before the inquiry on 5 September last year, telling the committee:
The suite of policies proposed in the Attorney General’s Discussion Paper add up to one of the most significant attacks on civil liberties in Australian history. Many of the proposals breach the rule of law, severely curb civil liberties, and threaten freedom of speech.
Today the committee’s final report was tabled in parliament.
The committee dodged the question of whether a data retention regime should be implemented, instead making the government accountable for the final decision:
There is a diversity of views within the Committee as to whether there should be a mandatory data retention regime. This is ultimately a decision for Government.
During the inquiry, a large number of submissions warned of the very significant civil liberties issues the proposal raises. The committee highlighted IPA evidence on this point:
The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) was … strident in its criticism of the potential impacts of data retention, stating that the ‘imposition of such an extraordinary, systematic and universal program would render any presumed or existent Australian right to privacy empty’.
Ultimately, the public outcry over this aspect of the regime probably restrained the committee from making a recommendation in favour of data retention:
A mandatory data retention regime raises fundamental privacy issues, and is arguably a significant extension of the power of the state over the citizen. No such regime should be enacted unless those privacy and civil liberties concerns are sufficiently addressed.
But the report is disappointing for its failure to recognise that these concerns can’t be addressed if such a regime is implemented – dragnet surveillance is diametrically opposed to the right to privacy.
With just three parliamentary sitting days left before the election on September 14 the government has announced that it has shelved its plans to implement a data retention regime.
It looks like the data retention threat is dead for now but vigilance will be required to make sure this dangerous proposal never becomes reality.