Aug 8, 2014

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.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

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.

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

20 thoughts on “Turnbull finally provides some progress on metadata definition

  1. klewso

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

  2. Jimmy

    “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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details