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RSPCA, Australia Post tapping your metadata

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Terror laws have been used by organisations like Australia Post and the RSPCA to pursue petty criminals, a new report on the uses of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act shows.

Australia Post has used terror laws to track down mobile phone thieves, while the RSPCA used the laws to track down and crack down on puppy farms and animal cruelty, raising questions about the unintended use of the laws.

The controversial Telecommunications Interception and Access Act was strengthened to force telecommunications companies to keep metadata for two years, but has been used by a host of government agencies not linked to anti-terrorism to see historical information of phone users without a warrant.

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Alarming number of offences detected.
Mobile phone thieves have nowhere to hide.

According to the report, Australia Post sought authorisation to access historical data on location, time and date information about mobile phone subscribers on 810 occasions in 2013/14, up from 375 in 2012/13.

A spokesperson for Australia Post said the access was to hunt down thieves who had stolen a phone or SIM card from one of their shops, or from a letterbox, so they can be brought to justice.

The spokesperson said the organisation operates under Commonwealth laws to both receive and disclose metadata.

The TIAA annual report for 2013/14 says the laws are aimed at serious organised crimes, national security and child pornography.

“Serious and organised criminals and persons seeking to harm Australia’s national security, routinely use telecommunications service providers and communications technology to plan and to carry out their activities,” the report said.

Other users of the laws include government departments, city councils and statutory bodies like Harness Racing Victoria, which received metadata three times in 2013/14.

Pig hunting

Last year a parliamentary committee described the RSCPA's management processes as dysfunctional.
Metadata has aided the RSPCA in its statutory role to root out animal cruelty.

State RSPCA branches in South Australia, Queensland and Victoria have used the TIAA since 2012 to track down animal cruelty perpetrators such as puppy farmers or pig hunters.

In Victoria the RSPCA would not answer how it had used the data which it accessed 64 times in the year, up from 23 times in 2012/13, according to the TIAA annual report.

“RSPCA Victoria uses metadata for the investigation of criminal animal cruelty breaches,” a statement from the organisation said.

In its 2013/14 annual report, RSPCA Queensland said its first successful pig hunting prosecution came after it tracked a video posted on Facebook to the user who published it. The RSPCA accessed historical phone data 19 times that year, up from zero in 2012/13.

Use of the TIAA to see historical metadata has a 0.05 per cent strike rate. About 335,000 authorisations to access the data resulted in 176 prosecutions and 144 convictions based on using the metadata as evidence, according to TIAA annual report figures.

A needle in a bigger haystack

George Fong, President of the Internet Society, a metadata watchdog, said the increase of information can make it harder to find the right evidence.

“The enforcement authorities say it’s vital to what they’re doing, but I haven’t seen a lot of solid data that suggests that’s the case,” he said.

He said the community needs to determine whether the widespread “speculative surveillance” or collection and storage of metadata was worthwhile.

“This proportionality is a concern that we have,” he said.

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