Big Brother’s metadata grab – what you need to know and why we should all be worried

"The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help." – Ronald Regan

We’ve been told time and time again why it’s so important for the Federal government to have access to our metadata – information about the websites we’ve visited and the pages on those websites. We’re told it’s about protecting us from terrorists, druglords, pedophiles and the boogeyman.

With the end of the Easter break, the full version of the government’s metadata retention scheme has kicked in. This means that government agencies can easily access information about your web use without needing a warrant.  

But why is this such a problem? Metadata only shows what websites you’ve visited, it doesn’t store the content of your messages or communications. And besides, why worry about this at all if you’ve got nothing to hide?

The Problem

 Metadata might not store the content of your communications, but it’s still enough to give a detailed picture of your online activities. It includes your telephone records as well as a history of times, locations, browser types, durations of sessions - even who you talked to online and their e-mail address, location and chat room aliases. This data can be selectively used by government agencies to strengthen allegations against anyone they would like to target, including whistle-blowers.

In fact, the government has already admitted to investigating and accessing the metadata of journalists who have exposed human rights abuse or have criticised their policies.

This is especially worrisome because it strengthens existing anti-whistleblower provisions in our laws including Section 26 of the Australian Border Force Act 2015 which punishes anyone who has worked at a detention centre – including teachers and doctors, for exposing corruption or abuse of power.  

Not a journalist or government employee? In the US, National Security Agency agents were caught out sharing people’s nudes captured under their data retention regime. In one particularly egregious example on our own shores, Queensland Police used the scheme to trawl the metadata of their cadets to see if they were sleeping with each other.

Officers from the ATO or Centrelink could also trawl your data and conclude that you do not live within your means – all with little oversight. In fact, any official from one of the many government departments could do just that and many have – over 60 government agencies have applied for access to your metadata since the program was proposed.

Most of us can trust ourselves to stay clear of dubious activities, but the evidence overwhelmingly shows that governments and their agencies can’t be trusted so easily.

Contrast these cases with the fact that metadata laws have so far prevented a grand total of ZERO terrorist attacks to date.

Check yourself before you wreck yourself

You can protect your privacy from prying government eyes (legally) using these tips.

Hide your browsing data using a VPN (Virtual Private Network): A VPN is a service which funnels your online activity through an opaque pipe, encrypting it and preventing your ISP or government agencies from seeing your metadata. A handy guide to choosing a VPN can be found here.

Avoid ISP-supplied e-mail services: Under the metadata laws, ISPs are obliged to disclose attachment names, file sizes and where you’re using their e-mail service from. Examples of these services include @optus or @bigpond e-mail addresses. By switching to external e-mail providers like @hotmail or @gmail, the ISP will only be able to record your location, and how long you were connected to that service.

Use Skype, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or other encrypted messaging services instead of SMS or phonecalls: Your ISP can record the data of who you SMS’d, the time of the SMS, where you sent it from and the file size of any attachments. By switching to services like FB Messenger or WhatsApp, they can only record your location, the size of the data you exchanged and how long you were using the application. Similarly, the numbers you call, time of call and location you’re calling from can all be recorded by your ISP whereas a Skype or Facebook call means that the time that you connected, amount of data used, and your location can be recorded.


Satyajeet Marar is the Director of MyChoice Australia and a Research Associate with the Australian Taxyapers’ Alliance 

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