Junk Explained: How To Get Around The Government’s New Data Retention Laws

The new laws will cost us between $118-319 million, but you can basically defeat them with Facebook chat.

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[UPDATE: April 13 2017]: After some delay through legal loopholes, the government’s controversial metadata retention scheme comes into effect today. Every telecommunications company in the country will now be required to retain their customers metadata for two years and hand it over to the government, no warrant required.

We figured a repush of this piece, which explains how easy the scheme is to get around, was in order.

Hi there. Would you mind if I followed you around with a notebook for the next two years and recorded the name of everyone you had a conversation with, the time, and the location? I also plan on giving this notebook to the police if they want it. But don’t worry — I’m not going to listen to the conversations. I’ll block my ears and avert my gaze. I wouldn’t want to invade your privacy.

Admittedly, this might be a bit of an overstatement of what the new data retention laws actually are, but at least I have your attention, which is good, because if you’re like me and you use the internet a lot, this issue is something you should know about.

So, How Paranoid Should I Be?

These new laws require Australian telecommunication providers to record and store phone and internet records for two years, and also give security agencies access to these records whenever they want, even if they don’t have a warrant. While Greens Senator Scott Ludlam voiced strong opposition, the legislation had bipartisan support, passing 43 votes to 16. This means that from next week, your internet service provider will be storing your metadata — information about where, when and with whom you have your conversations — and potentially passing this information onto the police without your knowledge.

The purpose of this, apparently, is to protect Australia from terrorist threats and child pornography, but this comes at the expense of placing the entire population under implicit surveillance. This is the first time in history such broad and comprehensive surveillance has even been possible, and therefore we really don’t even know what we’re getting ourselves in for, or how this bill will impact the very idea of democracy.

As it stands, there is no definition for the word “metadata” in Australian law, and George Brandis, who spearheaded the legislation, can offer you no explanation either. Tony Abbott has metaphorically described it as the envelope carrying the letter, rather than the content of the letter itself and he is right, in a typically old-fashioned sense. Metadata is the information about a conversation — who, when, where — without divulging what the conversation was about.

But an analogue definition of metadata fails in a digital age, because it is much more complicated to separate the who, when and where from the what in an online environment. This is because when we use the internet we’re constantly leaving traces of previously unimaginable forms of identifiable data, not just a name and address printed on the front of an envelope. For instance, according to the new legislation, metadata is your IP address, but not your browser history. And that’s all well and good, but how many Australian citizens know what an IP address is and what type of information it gives away?

Everyone’s been doing their best by publishing explainers and warnings, but once you start throwing around the word “data” a lot people understandably tune out.

This the heart of the issue. Because internet technology is constantly changing, no one knows exactly what internet metadata is. The whole conversation remains confusing and murky, and what we need with this new legislation is transparency and clarity. It’s a shame that this term causes so much confusion because the conversation around data retention is complex and involves more important questions about the future of privacy and anonymity.

In fact, this legislation is so problematic that the guy who introduced the bill into Parliament, Communications Minister-turned Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, has practically given you a guide for how to circumvent the scheme altogether.

While discussing the threat this posed to journalists on Sky News in March, he suggested Australians can use overseas communication services like Whatsapp and Skype in order to avoid detection. He willingly explained that Australian telcos can only track that you’ve connected with these servers, but not who you’re talking to.

Yes, it’s confusing that he would effectively invalidate a new $188-319 million system, but since Malcolm Turnbull’s clearly on board with the idea, here are four other ways that you can ensure your anonymity online.

1. Use An Overseas Email

This is a really simple one. Just use gmail or some other overseas email service to communicate. Or use Facebook or Twitter direct messaging. You probably already do this anyway. There is no way Google or Facebook or Twitter are going to give up their data to the Australian police because of this new legislation, so say whatever the hell you want.

2. Use Tor

Tor is a browser that operates by bouncing communications off servers around the world to make it difficult to detect the user’s IP address. An IP address is one of the most telling forms of metadata available online. Using this browser in the right way means that security agencies won’t be able to track where and when you’re using the internet.

Added bonus: their logo includes an onion.


Come at me, Tone.

3. Use VPN

A Virtual Private Network uses the public infrastructure of the internet to provide individual users with secure access. Basically, you subscribe to the VPN via a monthly payment, and then your internet activity becomes reliably anonymous. Your data is automatically encrypted at the sending end and decrypted at the receiving end. There are heaps of VPN-like services available for private use, and most will only set you back about $10 per month.

4. Encrypt Your Own Shit

This is a lifestyle choice rather than a paragraph, but there are a bunch of sites that will teach you how to get started. If this is the life you choose, hit me up with some hot tips. Clearly, you’re not going to have any problems with these new laws.