What Metadata Does The Government Want About You?

With the leaking of a discussion paper on telecommunications data retention, we are at last starting to get some clarity as to just what metadata the Abbott government is likely to ask telecommunications companies, internet service providers (ISPs) and others involved in communications services to store.

Browsing picture from Shutterstock

The paper is written to be "technology neutral" but the intention seems to be to ensure that the same information available from interception of traditional telephony is available from internet-based communications.

Essentially the law enforcement agencies want two types of "telecommunications data" (the term they use for metadata). First they want information about account owners ("subscribers") and second they want information sufficient to let them link traffic back to that subscriber.

Account owner information includes obvious data such as names and address, but also related information such as billing data, contact information and the like. They want to be able to find out who the user of a particular account is.

There is nothing new here. This is the same kind of information they have had access to for a very long time.

The second point is information that can enable captured traffic to be linked to that account. This is the most interesting part of the document.

Internet and telephone communication are not the same

In traditional telephony the link between identity and traffic is straightforward. The parties to a communication can be found from their telephone numbers. Telephone numbers do not change and are linked to a specific subscriber.

Unfortunately for the law enforcement authorities, in internet-based communication the story is much more complicated.

Internet communication is built upon a technology called packet switched networking. When we send an email, look up a web page or use an IP phone, our communication is split into discrete chunks of data called packets.

These packets are then transmitted between end points based on source and destination addresses contained within a header in each packet. This approach to networking allows great resilience and flexibility.

But for law enforcement authorities it creates all sorts of challenges. In particular there is no identifier that plays the same role in the internet as a telephone number.

No fixed address online

The nearest is the IP address. Unfortunately, the link between identity and IP address is quite weak. IP addresses are not fixed. The IP address used by someone today may well be used by someone else tomorrow.

IP addresses may actually change during the course of communication. A technology (Network Address Translation) may substitute one IP address for another. Just knowing an IP address does not give the same information as a telephone number.

It seems to be the goal of the paper to make sure that telcos, ISPs and other service providers store sufficient information so that it provides the same information for someone on the internet as with telephone numbers.

Traffic might be observed going to and from a terrorist website. The law enforcement authorities would like to know who is accessing that website.

They see that the IP address of the person accessing the website belongs to a particular ISP. They go to the ISP and ask who was using that IP address at the time the website was accessed.

The government's document aims to make sure the ISP retains enough metadata so that they can answer that question.

What the government really wants

So does it succeed? It seems the goal of the document is solely to provide the same sort of data that can be obtained from traditional telephony. But there are a few concerns.

The first is that the author wants upload and download volumes to be recorded. This might simply be to see if the account is active but it could also be used as a basis for investigating illegal downloads.

The second is that although it is written to be technology neutral, it is obvious that the law enforcement authorities' surveillance systems and equipment are shaped by telephony, rather than the internet.

Reading the document, one can almost feel sorry for the author as he or she tries to map internet based systems onto traditional telephony. With the internet the distinction between metadata and data is much less clear.

It may well be that how interception is done, what metadata is accessed and, most importantly, who can request it needs to be revisited.

The Conversation

Philip Branch is Senior Lecturer in Telecommunications at Swinburne University of Technology. He has received funding for work in the area of Lawful Interception.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


    The first is that the author wants upload and download volumes to be recorded. This might simply be to see if the account is active but it could also be used as a basis for investigating illegal downloads.And if it's behind a VPN..?
    As I mentioned in an earlier post, they may be able to see how much your downloading, but not what, when your behind a VPN. They're going to need a bloody good reason to issue a warrant to know what you are downloading though..!

    combined with phone the insight someone can learn from meta data is scary - the government claims its like the address on a letter and they don't know anything personal or private but consider these scenarios: we know what time, which pages and for how long you went to at several gay porn sites - but we don't know what sexuality you are. We know you searched std symptoms and the looked up the contact details for your local GP and called your priveate medical insurance company - but we don't know what for. We know you frequently visit a budhist forum and looked up the directions to a particular budhist church - but we don't know what religious affiliation you are. We know you searched relationship advice, and then marriage counseling one week then divorce lawyers the next or We know you looked up early pregnancy symptoms and then information on the nearest abortion clinic. every piece of information about your life the govtr will own. voice to text translations are considered metadata - warrants are unnecessary as they wont provide anything they wont already have.

    It will be a nightmare for anyone to enforce because there are so many ways of remaining anonymous. VPNs are just the beginning. Encryption will slow them down, as will using Tor. There are lots of ways of masking the end user of traffic and messages as well as the content. I cannot imagine how any government thinks it can monitor an entire population completely. The people who want to remain anonymous, for whatever reason (and there doesn't have to be any reason apart from protecting one's privacy) will be able to find new ways to stay ahead of the spooks.

    Poor old Brandis. His head must be hurting by now trying to understand what few people understand well. He hasn't a hope of ever keeping up.

    This government spying is so contrary to the principles of the internet that short of radical redesign of ALL major internet protocols, there is little chance of governments preventing people from maintaining their privacy.

    Notice I say 'maintaining their privacy' not 'hiding'.

    Why not create Government owned or private VPN so they can catch all meta data that they needed. As identified before about volumes of up/download, i thought they just want to know what, when, where the start and the end of the call or access of the internet. If they are looking for data volumes then that's a different thing.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now