As demolition jobs go, it is one of the more comprehensive ones you’ll see: iiNet’s response to the first paper circulated by the federal Attorney-General’s Department to initiate discussions on the government’s proposal for the mass surveillance mechanism known as data retention.

This isn’t the first industry consultation process about data retention. As Crikey revealed last year, the department began pushing the Rudd government virtually the moment it was elected in 2007, but cruelled its own efforts by trying to rush the issue and failing to listen to the concerns of industry.

A recurring theme of previous AGD consultation efforts on data retention was its wholly unwarranted secrecy, and bureaucrats’ poor understanding of some of the most basic issues around metadata. The latest consultation papers — though widely available — are still officially secret; judging by iiNet’s response, AGD has barely improved its grasp of the basics, with many of the categories of the proposed data to be retained described as “vaguely defined” by the company. What we do know is that AGD has explicitly and bluntly contradicted both the Prime Minister and its own minister, Attorney-General George Brandis, who have both insisted — in Brandis’ case as recently as last week — that data retention will not involve anything beyond what companies currently collect.

As iiNet notes, however,

“The Consultation Paper expressly states that data which falls within the defined data set will be required to be retained ‘even if this exceeds business needs’ and that ‘the policy recognises that providers may need to modify some systems to ensure they meet the minimum standard’.”

There’s only three ways of reconciling this contradiction: either AGD has got it wrong, Brandis and Abbott don’t have even a basic grasp of what data retention is, or Brandis and Abbott are deliberately misleading the community.

Between AGD’s poor grasp of the technical basics and the huge gulf between what politicians say and what their bureaucrats demand, it’s no wonder companies like iiNet — regardless of their position on the benefits or otherwise of data retention — are so utterly confused.

The AGD has had seven years to get this right. That they still haven’t done so suggests rank incompetence, and that’s hardly comforting when it comes to plans for mass surveillance.