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Turnbull finally provides some progress on metadata definition

After a discussion with ASIO and the AFP, Malcolm Turnbull has presented a definition of metadata that makes more sense than any offered so far by his colleagues.

After Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s appearance on AM this morning, there’s now a fifth definition of metadata in just four days from the government. But, at last, we might actually have one that is comprehensible.

The Prime Minister and the Attorney-General have both stumbled badly over what data they want a data retention scheme to keep. Having kept Turnbull out of the decision and the initial explanation of the proposal, the Communications Minister was allowed in yesterday. His initial foray wasn’t promising: talking with Bloomberg, he spoke nebulously of how the government was on a “journey” to define metadata in consultation with telcos. But this morning, the Zen self-enlightenment stuff was dropped, after a meeting with intelligence agencies and the Australian Federal Police last night. Suddenly we had a much clearer definition:

It does not relate to the content of traffic. It doesn’t relate to which websites you visit. It is simply in the internet world, the internet protocol world: it simply means that you go on to your ISP, you’re connected to your ISP to connect to the internet. It allocates you a number which is called an IP address, which is essentially your internet address for a period. That may be for a short time or a long time. And that is in the ISP’s records connected to your account.”

So, no browsing history — contradicting both the PM and the Attorney-General and even, apparently, officials who briefed journalists.

How do we know Turnbull has the right end of the stick? Well, we don’t, given how inept this government appears to be, but Turnbull’s explanation was reiterated at a joint media conference by David Irvine of ASIO and Andrew Colvin of the AFP late this morning. And the definition provided by Turnbull closely matches the direction that agencies wanted to go in 2012.

In response to similar — but nowhere near as extensive — confusion over metadata in 2012, then attorney-general Nicola Roxon approved the release of a working definition. The head of her department (and longtime Crikey favourite) Roger Wilkins released it in response to questioning at Estimates by Greens senator Scott Ludlam. Ludlam then discussed the meaning of the document with the AFP’s Neil Gaughan. That discussion can be found here, but this is the crucial exchange (edited):

Ludlam: Part I says “relates to communications for item 2, internet,” and then it says, “Information that allows a communication to occur,” and the first dot point there says, “the internet identifier”. I presume you mean an IP address there.

Gaughan: Correct.

Ludlam: It says “The internet identifier assigned to the user by the provider,” but you are telling us that that would not allow you to identify web traffic.

[AFP Commissioner] Negus: That is right.

Gaughan: What it does, Senator, is it allows us to identify who has used a particular IP address when they have undertaken a certain activity — for example, downloading child abuse material … For instance, how it works in child protection investigations is a very good example. We receive from our international law information agencies what has been accessed — that is, child abuse material — and an IP address. That is all we get. We do not get any other information. We then ask the telcos to identify who has accessed that IP address to enable us to commence the investigation.

Ludlam: So who held the IP address for a period of time in which content was accessed?

Gaughan: Correct, but it is in undertaking our specific investigation … We do not obtain IP addresses and then go seek the internet of what they have looked at

When Ludlam pressed them on the issue of whether the AFP could go looking for web history, it produced an angry retort from Wilkins that he would “spell it out in words of one syllable” that it didn’t include that. IT specialists can debate issues about, for example, the use of dynamic addresses that may change with individual ISP customers, or the extent to which IP addresses can facilitate identifying browsing history. But there’s at least some solid footing to the definition offered by Turnbull. And the fact that Brandis, in his car crash interview on Wednesday, seemed fixated on the word “address”, seems to suggest agencies had explained the definition to him, but he had failed to grasp it.

None of this fixes the problem that data retention poses to whistleblowers, journalists, activists and politicians. But the lack of browsing history is likely to partially allay the privacy concerns of many.

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  • 1
    klewso
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    This is “The Turnbull Edition” - is it applicable to this government?

  • 2
    Jimmy
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    The Prime Minister and the Attorney-General have both stumbled badly over what data they want a data retention scheme to keep.” What policy release has this govt not stumbled badly with - the consistent theme is that ministers (and the PM) are not across their portfolios or their polisies any time they front the media, in this aspect (along with many others) this got seems far worse than any of its predecessors - under prior govts there would be the occasional contradiction from the cabinet but under Abbott’s govt it seems to be stock standard.

  • 3
    The_roth
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    I am at a loss as to why our law enforcement is pursuing this when it has been internationally panned as being a waste of tme with apprehension rates being increased by 0.6% which must be in the margin for error category.

    The Danish and German experience particularly illustrates this. There must be more to it than they are letting on. Perhaps the Yanks and the Poms won’t let us play with the big boys if we don’t toe the line!

  • 4
    soundmalfunction
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    This is huge. The degree to which Abbott and Brandis got the basic concept of this issue so wrong is almost frightening. To not have even grasped the concept of whose IP address would be retained is pretty poor. You can tell they didn’t even bother to try and understand - they just couldn’t be arsed. It reveals a level of thinking & preparation that goes some way to explain this governments constant state of fuck-up-edness. I suggest ASIO introduce the use of sock puppets in future meetings with the PM and the AG. Idiots.

  • 5
    tonysee
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    I think these stuff ups will be seen more and more as significant steps in the (re)rise of MT.

    Even his erstwhile enemies will begin to see that, compared to what they have now, Turnbull is a genius.

    If the current trajectory continues (notwithstanding spikes afforded by national tragedies) the question will be will they dump Abbott or will he fall on his own sword?

  • 6
    beachcomber
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I get the impression that none of Abbott’s Ministers, himself included, have any idea what they are doing.
    Abbott himself is just a mouth with legs. Hockey, Pyne, Truss, Bishop and now Brandis are all so far out of their depth that Border Security need to be sent out to save them. Which is usually the distraction they resort to when too many pear shapes appear in one week.

  • 7
    Jimmy
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    As an aside good to see the PM out mixing it with the people today, visting some school kids at Seaforth (where the median family income is $2,690 per week) he was met at the gate by the school captains Kristin Kendrick-Little and Luca Doorbar-Baptist.

    Seems to be the people this govt is governing for.

  • 8
    Patrick
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    So they will know how long you have been connected to the internet and what IP address was assigned to you by your ISP while you were connected. What is the good of that? Are they going to round up and interrogate all the software engineers who probably spend a good part of everyday online?

  • 9
    tom fudd
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Once you have the IP address you can match to it to every webpage access that IP address does if you are interested and you have access to site or access proxy logs collected by ISPs, websites or other interested parties listening to the wires.

    Once you have the ip address you can get the details of the account holder attached to that ip address at that particular time from the owner of that ip address block.

    So if you are really interested and you know the right people, the IP address will give you complete browsing history down to page content.

  • 10
    zut alors
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to see a debate/cage match between Abbott and Brandis to prove conclusively which one deserves the trophy for being the most clueless about IT.

  • 11
    Kim F
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Chill out. The spy industry can’t handle all of this new info, not really, because they’ll be too busy working out the feng shui problems of their already massive new building, initiated under the previous government, and now including where to place most auspiciously the new empire created for them by the coalition’s $600m budget boost, and all of the extra job applications, selection criteria, promotions, allocation of desks, tea rosters, and many other difficult issues of office politics.

  • 12
    klewso
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    It’s what they’ll do with the bits they want to play with?

  • 13
    Pedantic, Balwyn
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Malcolm Turnbull’s definition of metadata might fit the Government’s policy, if it isn’t risible to call it a policy, however it does not match the definition employed by IT literati.
    In all past definitions metadata includes the IP address of the site visited, together with duration of the visit and file size of any content download. In certain instances it also includes details of pages visited, but this is not a general rule.
    Obviously the Coalition wants to hide the fact that metadata collection, up to this point included what is effectively browsing history at site entry level, perhaps the US and others recommended that it was kept secret.However they should call it for what it is under the Turnbull’s new definition “Minidata”.

  • 14
    zut alors
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Pedantic, Turnbull’s statements on Rudd’s NBN certainly reflected his party’s policy - while, one suspects, concealing his true (& educated) opinion.

    Turnbull officially espousing on metadata would be any different?

  • 15
    AR
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Roth - this is so we can join the 5 AYES in kow-towing to the Hegemon.

  • 16
    Bill Williams
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    Cant understand why there wasn’t a debate in the house about this???

  • 17
    botswana bob
    Posted Saturday, 9 August 2014 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    This is the Turnbull version. Unlike phoney Tony & bookcase Brandis he does know how to turn on a computer.
    Not mentioned so far: what are access controls if any? Currently bureaucrats simply fill out a form so councils and Australia Post are snooping on your mobile activity.If its this easy snooping on the citizenry may replace paper clip counting for bored pen-pushers.
    And what happens when stored metadata is hacked which it almost certainly will be. [everyone from pimply faced geeks to organized crime will be after it] Will we be told or — most likely — will it be covered up? If we suffer economic loss/violation of privacy will we get compo and how will we get it?

  • 18
    Luke Hellboy
    Posted Saturday, 9 August 2014 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Bill Williams - The reason there was no debate in the house is because that would require labour to have some ideas and counter-policies. Haven’t seen much evidence of that so far…
    As much as I appreciate not having to see an opposition that shouts down everything the govt says about anything, I’m not sure having an invisible opposition is an improvement. Surprised I haven’t seen Palmersaurus try to take back his mantle as the politician who speaks the loudest on subjects he is completely ignorant of.

  • 19
    Kim F
    Posted Sunday, 10 August 2014 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Labour knows they have to stay sweet with the intelligence and defence industry to survive one nanosecond as a future government. 1975 taught them this for all time. plus there’s the glamour, they like the cloak and dagger, and they want the invitations and the nods of condescending approval from the captains of the wealthiest, most exclusive industry on earth, the global military-industrial complex. So, if it isn’t this, it will be another big investment. Not that the criminals should be given any leeway whatsoever. Everybody wants to live safely in Sydney, Melbourne and every other place. But if a few teen hackers can routinely penetrate the world’s most secure systems, why not just hire some of them to do the tracking down.

  • 20
    cartoonmick
    Posted Sunday, 10 August 2014 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    So much confusion.

    The only clear understanding I have of this situation is, the pollies themselves do not understand what it is they’re proposing.

    And that’s a big worry if applied across the board with regard to all their proposals and policies.

    Do they really understand them and the implications???

    But, back to the Metadata, can we retain the memory of this fiasco for two years ?

    This cartoon refers … .

    http://cartoonmick.wordpress.com/editorial-political/#jp-carousel-900

    Cheers
    Mick

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