EDITORIAL: Why does metadata matter?

AUSTRALIA’S two major political parties can’t usually agree on very much, but they both support the imposition of a new regime of data retention that promises to make George Orwell’s famous ‘‘Big Brother’’ seem ill-informed by comparison.

In the name of making Australians safer, the government and opposition are shepherding into existence an expensive program of state surveillance, forcing communications service providers to store and make available huge volumes of detail about every citizen’s activities.

And while the authorities insist that what’s being kept is only ‘‘metadata’’, the definitions involved are so vague and unclear that it seems nobody is quite sure precisely what metadata is going to mean and include.

What seems certain is that metadata includes information about a person’s location, when they contact which other people and why, what they search for, what they want, plus information about their physical health and financial status.

A former general counsel with the United States’ National Security Agency, Stewart Baker, famously said in 2013 that “metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life. If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content”.

If the agencies demanding this information, now and in future, were guaranteed to be competent, benign and non-corrupt, then many people might – if they had any kind of choice – nervously agree to the imposition of the mass surveillance regime.

Sadly, however, history is littered with instances where members of agencies and organisations wielding the power that knowledge brings have been incompetent, malign and corrupt – sometimes all at once.

History also furnishes numerous cases where powers granted for good reasons have come to be abused.

One particularly concerning aspect of the mass surveillance program is the extent to which future governments or agencies, intent on suppressing criticism or concealing information, might use stored metadata to identify and punish whistleblowers.

Even as things now stand, many whistleblowers whose actions are clearly seen to be principled and beneficial to the community suffer for their trouble.

Just knowing how hard it will be to avoid being identified will probably dissuade many would-be whistleblowers from warning the public about injustice and wrongdoing.

And it seems that shouldering these risks will come at a price, with some internet service providers suggesting households may have to pay an extra $60 to $130 a year to cover the cost of being spied on by the government.

The benefits of the scheme seem unclear, but the risks and potential downsides are not so difficult to spot.