What metadata does the government want about you?

Aug 28, 2014 by Philip Branch
The government wants your movements online to be retained by ISPs and other companies. Credit: Flickr/Envato , CC BY

With the leaking of a discussion paper on telecommunications data retention, we are at last starting to get some clarity as to just what metadata the Abbott government is likely to ask telecommunications companies, internet servce providers (ISPs) and others involved in communications services to store.

The paper is written to be "technology neutral" but the intention seems to be to ensure that the same information available from interception of traditional telephony is available from internet-based communications.

Essentially the want two types of "telecommunications data" (the term they use for metadata). First they want information about account owners ("subscribers") and second they want information sufficient to let them link traffic back to that subscriber.

Account owner information includes obvious data such as names and address, but also related information such as billing data, contact information and the like. They want to be able to find out who the user of a particular account is.

There is nothing new here. This is the same kind of information they have had access to for a very long time.

The second point is information that can enable captured traffic to be linked to that account. This is the most interesting part of the document.

Internet and telephone communication are not the same

In traditional telephony the link between identity and traffic is straightforward. The parties to a communication can be found from their . Telephone numbers do not change and are linked to a specific subscriber.

Unfortunately for the law enforcement authorities, in internet-based communication the story is much more complicated.

Internet communication is built upon a technology called packet switched networking. When we send an email, look up a web page or use an IP phone, our communication is split into discrete chunks of data called packets.

These packets are then transmitted between end points based on source and destination addresses contained within a header in each packet. This approach to networking allows great resilience and flexibility.

But for law enforcement authorities it creates all sorts of challenges. In particular there is no identifier that plays the same role in the internet as a telephone number.

No fixed address online

The nearest is the IP address. Unfortunately, the link between identity and IP address is quite weak. IP addresses are not fixed. The IP address used by someone today may well be used by someone else tomorrow.

IP addresses may actually change during the course of communication. A technology (Network Address Translation) may substitute one IP address for another. Just knowing an IP address does not give the same information as a telephone number.

It seems to be the goal of the paper to make sure that telcos, ISPs and other service providers store sufficient information so that it provides the same for someone on the internet as with telephone numbers.

Traffic might be observed going to and from a terrorist website. The authorities would like to know who is accessing that website.

They see that the IP address of the person accessing the website belongs to a particular ISP. They go to the ISP and ask who was using that IP address at the time the website was accessed.

The government's document aims to make sure the ISP retains enough metadata so that they can answer that question.

What the government really wants

So does it succeed? It seems the goal of the document is solely to provide the same sort of data that can be obtained from traditional telephony. But there are a few concerns.

The first is that the author wants upload and download volumes to be recorded. This might simply be to see if the account is active but it could also be used as a basis for investigating illegal downloads.

The second is that although it is written to be technology neutral, it is obvious that the ' surveillance systems and equipment are shaped by telephony, rather than the internet.

Reading the document, one can almost feel sorry for the author as he or she tries to map internet based systems onto traditional telephony. With the internet the distinction between metadata and data is much less clear.

It may well be that how interception is done, what metadata is accessed and, most importantly, who can request it needs to be revisited.

Explore further: Metadata and the law: What your smartphone really says about you

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Metadata and the law: What your smartphone really says about you

Mar 03, 2014

Metadata related to lawful interception has been in the news a bit lately. You may have seen last week the Australian Federal Police (AFP) called for more access to electronic metadata as a Senate committee evaluates Australian mass surveillance laws. ...

Internet transition to speedier IPv6 accelerating

Mar 27, 2014

The transition to the next-generation Internet protocol IPv6 is set to speed up this year as web addresses under the previous system IPv4 run out, a senior industry figure said at a meeting about the future ...

Communications surveillance in Australia

Jul 15, 2013

Hot on the heels of data analyst whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations about the existence of the PRISM electronic surveillance program operated by the United States' National Security Agency since 2007, ...

Signing contracts on the telephone

Jan 27, 2010

Internet telephony has developed from a niche product into standard technology in recent years. Most telephone providers switched their background technology to Voice over IP, or VoIP for short, long ago. BITKOM, the German ...

Recommended for you

Hacked emails slice spam fast

43 minutes ago

Spam spreads much faster and to more people when it is being propagated by hacked, or otherwise compromised, email accounts rather than legitimate accounts, according to research published in the International Journal of ...

Ten ways to stay safe while shopping online

Nov 25, 2014

As the holiday shopping season gets underway, the importance of avoiding hackers, phishing scams and phony websites while buying online becomes increasingly important.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.