Telstra reports hefty jump in government data access demands

Australian telecommunications company Telstra reports a substantial increase in government data access requests

Australian telecommunications company Telstra has reported that government requests for details about phone and internet communications has increased by 3,000 in the past six months.

Telstra received 39,395 access requests from Australian government agencies from January to June 2014, up from 36,053 for the previous six months, according to the firm’s latest transparency report.

Between 1 July 2013 and 30 June 2014, Telstra responded to 84,949 data access requests, but this figure does not include lawful requests for information by national security bodies, because reporting on these figures is prohibited by law.

Australian law also prohibits telecommunications companies from disclosing which government agencies have requested access to customer information or telling customers if their information has been accessed by government agencies.

"Like all telecommunications companies that provide services in Australia, we are required by law to assist Australian government agencies for defined purposes, such as investigating and solving crimes,” Telstra's report said.

Government data requests and the law

According to Telstra, “customer information” typically includes details that appear on a phone bill, such as the customer’s name, address, service number and connection dates – but can include other information, such as a customer’s date of birth and previous address, the report said.

Carriage service records relate to use of telecommunications services, including call records, SMS records and internet records. These records include information such as details of a called party, and the date, time and duration of a call.

Internet session information includes the date, time and duration of internet sessions as well as email logs, but does not include URLs.

“The government has stated URLs are considered to be content and, as such, they will only request access to this information under a warrant or other court order,” the report said.

Telstra said it discloses customer information in accordance with the law, and will reject any government request that is invalid or lacks a warrant if it seeks information that requires one.

“One important difference in the law enforcement environment in Australia compared to other countries is that agencies can undertake pre-warrant checks to make sure they are targeting their warrants accurately. This reduces the instances of mistakes leading to a rejection of a warrant,” Telstra said.

Moves to transparency

The company received 75,448 pre-warrant check requests in the past year, according to the report.

The report comes as the Australian federal government pushes for a mandatory data retention scheme to force telecommunications companies to retain personal data from phone and web users, according to The Guardian.

Australian telecommunications providers began publishing transparency reports in early 2014 in response to growing public concerns about government communications data access requests, the paper said.

Referring to data access requests by non-Australian agencies, the report said: “Telstra is an Australian company with a global footprint. Wherever Telstra operates, we have to comply with the laws of the land.”

But outside Australia – across all the other countries in which Telstra Global operates – the company received less than 100 requests for customer information in 2013 to 2014.

Worldwide civil liberties concerns

There has been growing concern worldwide about governments tracking communications data after whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed mass internet surveillance by US and UK intelligence agencies.

These concerns in the UK were inflamed in mid-July 2014 by the government passing the controversial Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act.

The legislation was passed only after the government secured multi-party support by promising to include a raft of safeguards.

As the legislation was passed, civil liberties groups called for greater transparency after figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed that the government paid almost £65m to communications service providers to retain communications data over a six-year period.

At the time, Emma Carr, acting director of Big Brother Watch, said: “It is clear that communications service providers are being paid with one hand and silenced with another. If the government wants to force communication service providers to retain citizens’ data, then this must go hand in hand with greater transparency.”

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