The government’s decision to limit how many agencies can ask telecommunications companies to hand over your data appears to have resulted in fewer instances of data being handed over.

The drop is a surprise as the stats had continued to rise year after year. But in the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s annual communications report released on Wednesday, the number of times telcos handed over data declined in 2015-2016 compared to 2014-2015.

Under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 the number of times data was handed over dropped from 604,718 times in 2014-2015 down to 559,950 times.

The authority doesn’t explicitly state the reason for the decline, but the drop coincides with the implementation of the new data retention scheme which limited access to just over two dozen agencies. Prior to the legislation, almost any agency could just ask for access to anyone’s personal metadata — including organisations like the RSPCA and local councils — as long as it was for investigating crime, or protecting revenue.

The number of times agencies asked for data to protect revenue dropped drastically in 2015-16 — down from 7,206 times in 14-15 to just 2,929 times.

As part of the national security legislation that forced all telecommunications companies in Australia to retain call records, assigned IP addresses, email information, call locations, SMS records and other data for two years for warrantless access by law enforcement, the government dramatically shortened the list of agencies that could access telecommunications metadata, much to their ire.

Over 60 agencies in fact, after having their supply of metadata cut off, subsequently applied to Attorney-General George Brandis to get their access back. They were unsuccessful — a spokesperson for Brandis told Crikey that no agency had been added to the list to access metadata.

The report also reveals that telecommunications companies are already worse off under the new data retention scheme even before many of the companies are compliant with the law. The ACMA has estimated that the total cost for around 180 companies will be at least $198 million from the 2014-15 financial year through to 2016-2017. The biggest cost will be in the current financial year at $125 million.

This is likely on the low end of the scale of the actual costs, because not every telco would have reported their costs yet. In addition to that, the department is only making $128 million available in this financial year, meaning that at least $70 million of the costs so far to comply with data retention has been loaded on the industry.

We won’t know which agencies made the most requests, or how many requests they made until the Attorney-General’s Department releases its annual TIA Act report. It is usually supposed to be released before the end of the year but since embarking on data retention these reports have been released later than usual.

That report will also likely contain data on the number of journalist warrants — signifying the number of times an agency was successful in getting a warrant to access a journalist’s metadata to find a source — issued in the last financial year. The Prime Minister today confirmed the Department of Social Services had referred to the AFP for investigation a Fairfax story containing leaked Cabinet documents about plans for massive changes to Australia’s visa system and the impact it could have on social cohesion.

Peter Fray

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