Australia is one of the world’s most intensively surveilled Western countries, with its security and other agencies demanding access to the information of more of our population than virtually any Western country.

Yesterday, the Attorney-General’s Department released its 2013-14 report on the interception and accessing of communications data. The report covers the use of wiretaps (which require a warrant) as well as requests for stored communications data by law enforcement agencies or other agencies charged with enforcing criminal law, or protecting public revenue, which don’t require a warrant. In 2013-14, there were 334,658 requests, up from 330,798 requests the year before. Following the passage of the Liberal-Labor mass surveillance scheme earlier this year, communications companies will be required to store communications data for two years.

Those 330,798 requests mean that, on average, 1.4% of the Australian population had their data obtained in 2013-14.

How did that stand up internationally? It’s hard to make a perfect comparison, but when the European Union’s data retention directive was in force (it has since been found to be illegal, despite George Brandis trying to claim the world was moving in the direction of data retention), a number of EU countries provided data retention statistics, including the number of “cases in which information was provided to the competent authorities in accordance with applicable national law”.

The most recent European data that is available is for 2012. In 2012-13, the previous year to the current report, the number of requests made by Australian agencies per head of population, was about the same (1.4%) as 2013-14. In 2012, the UK had 724,751 requests for retained data, for 63 million people — or around 1.1% of the population. Ireland had around a fifth of that, less than 0.2%. Denmark had 0.1%. The Czech Republic had 0.5%; Greece, which has had significant problems with right-wing terrorism, 0.2%. Germany, using separately reported data, had 17,599 requests, or 0.02% (even if you add in its 23,000 wiretaps, Germany was only 0.05%).

New Zealand government data, for comparison, is harder to obtain, but given the level of surveillance device warrants (where police or another agency actually listen to someone or otherwise monitor them) in New Zealand was a massive 84 in 2012-13 compared to 4725 in Australia, the chances of New Zealand being a more intensively surveilled society for anyone other than Kim Dotcom or Nicky Hager are limited.

Of course, figures differ across the states in Australia. NSW is the biggest state for data requests — and not just because of its population. The NSW figure is 1.8% in 2013-14, way above the level for the rest of the country (partly because the NSW Police, apparently, spend a great deal of time bugging and trying to spy on each other).

The only country that has higher levels of surveillance than Australia in the EU is Poland, where in 2012 were there was a whopping 1.7 million requests, or 4.4% of the population.

Ready-to-hand data from two of the biggest surveillance countries, France and the US, isn’t easily available. In the US case, the NSA’s approach, until recently blocked by Congress, has been to “collect it all”, meaning technically every American’s telephone data has been accessed by government. But either way, Australians were one of the most heavily surveilled people in the West in 2012-13 and have only become more so in 2013-14 with the continued growth in warrantless surveillance.

The 2013-14 report offers much the same as previous years — the prominent role of the NSW Police Force compared to other states (despite the number of NSW Police requests falling), the cast of regulatory bit players who have used current laws to obtain peoples’ metadata — local councils, harness racing bodies, the RSPCA, and a peculiar newcomer, the “National Measurement Institute” — as well as the annual ups and downs of activity by federal departments hunting through people’s metadata. The Department of Immigration has, surprisingly, decreased its number of requests to 107 in 2013-14, after having made 172 in 2012-13. But that’s been made up for, perhaps, by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which increased its number of requests, from 151 to 227.

Legislation requires this report to be released as soon as practicable after June 30 of the relevant year. Previous reports have been released a few months after the end of the relevant financial year. This one has been held over until June the following year. AGD, as always treating the rest of us with contempt, offers no explanation for why it has been delayed. Admittedly, they’ve changed the font from the decidedly workaday look of previous reports. And this year’s report has gone beyond the bolding and shading of previous efforts and splashes out on three colours. Maybe that’s what took them so long to issue it.

Wouldn’t have anything to do with not wanting to draw attention to the massive extent of warrantless snooping on Australians during the data retention debate earlier this year, of course.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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