WhatsApp Age Blunts Australia Data Retention Plan, Turnbull Says

Australia’s proposal to make internet providers retain customer data may be of limited use to security agencies as people increasingly send messages via Google Inc. and Facebook Inc., the country’s communications minister said.

The government is considering forcing telecommunications companies to store so-called metadata for up to two years so it can be accessed without warrant by law-enforcement agencies. The proposal has triggered privacy concerns in Australia amid a global backlash against government surveillance exposed by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

“It’s very important to understand the limitations” of the metadata, Malcolm Turnbull said in an interview in Sydney today. “Knowing, for example, that I’ve been logged onto Google without knowing what I’m doing on Google, is probably not terribly useful.”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government has struggled to explain the data retention proposal announced earlier this week, sowing confusion as to whether a customer’s web browsing history could be accessed by spy agencies.

IiNet Ltd., a Perth-based listed internet service provider, has said it’s confused by the government’s “contradictory comments,” and warned that the data storage may cost customers hundreds of millions of dollars.

IP information used by fast-growing internet-based services such as WhatsApp and Facebook is much less useful to law enforcement than the phone records traditionally collected by fixed-line and mobile-phone companies, Turnbull said.

WhatsApp, Facebook

“In the telephone world, the carrier knows who you are, it’s got your account, and it knows who you’re calling, and for how long,” he said. “In the IP world, we don’t have that visibility, and that is before you even start talking about VPNs and other even more sophisticated measures. There’s so many platforms now,” such as WhatsApp and Facebook, and “essentially what is happening on them and within them, is not visible to the carrier.”

Turnbull said telecommunications companies had expressed concern about costs during talks on the proposal this week.

“Until the government concludes precisely what type of customer information it wants telcos to retain and for how long, until you know that, you won’t know what the cost implications are,” the minister said. “The boundary between what we call metadata and content is not always clear cut. It’s important for us to go through the iterative process to then be able to define precisely what it is we’re seeking to have retained, and then the issues of cost and practicality can then be discussed.”

Catherine Harris, a spokeswoman for Telstra Corp., Australia’s largest phone company, and Sophie Cotterill, a spokeswoman for Singtel Optus Pty., declined to comment on the government’s data retention proposals.

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