The government agency tasked with making sure butchers aren’t giving you underweight meat wants metadata to chase dodgy traders, documents obtained by Crikey reveal.

When Parliament last year passed legislation requiring all telecommunications companies in Australia to retain so-called metadata — that is call records, assigned IP addresses, email logs and other communications information — for a period of two years, the government reduced the number of agencies that could access this metadata without a warrant from 83 agencies down to just 22. It came as no shock that the 61 agencies excluded quickly reapplied to get access to the data.

One such agency that seemed an unusual applicant for the data was the National Measurement Institute. This government organisation, sitting in the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, is responsible for ensuring weights and other measurement tools used in shops across Australia are accurate. In 2013-14, inspectors for the agency audited close to 10,000 businesses and issued 3500 non-compliance notices, and 138 fines adding up to over $150,000. It had six issues referred to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) for legal action.

It is unclear why checking whether meats, firewood, milk, groceries and gold are being weighed properly would necessitate access to telecommunications data without a warrant. When Crikey initially asked the agency why it had sought access to metadata, NMI sat on the request for a day before declining to comment, referring all questions back to the Attorney-General’s Department.

Using freedom of information law, Crikey has obtained NMI’s application to the Attorney-General’s Department from last year, along with nine emails sent between the Attorney-General’s Department and NMI concerning access to metadata. NMI was told by the department in May last year that it would be removed from the list and would need to “make a compelling case” if it wished to be reinstated.

In its application, NMI boss Peter Fisk said that without metadata access inspectors would be unable to locate and identify non-compliant traders. Fisk wrote:

“It is not uncommon for traders to provide only a mobile/landline phone number when advertising their products. When investigating an alleged short measure or other breach of the law in a transaction where the only contact information provided by the trader is a telephone number, inspectors are unable to identify and locate the alleged perpetrator.”

Fisk said this had been exacerbated by online trading. He said that using telecommunications data to locate the name and address of a trader alleged to have been in breach of the law, inspectors could then go out and interview the trader, inspect weights and goods, and potentially issue infringement notices or refer the matter to the CDPP.

According to NMI, it accessed metadata only once each year in 2013-14 and 2014-15.

In an email from October last year, the department informed NMI that no temporary declarations had been made to give access to metadata at the time. Brandis has not granted metadata access to NMI or any of the other 60 agencies that have requested temporary declarations to access metadata. If an agency wants permanent access to metadata again, it will need the approval of Parliament to amend the data retention legislation.

Peter Fray

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