Since Edward Snowden’s revelations about how governments use the Internet and telecommunications services to spy on their own citizens, the issue of the extent to which carriers help them do this has gained a high profile.
Much of the surveillance is covert and illegal, but much of it is covered by laws that require carriers to divulge information about their customers to fight crime, or when it is deemed to be in the national interest.
To indicate that it is not their fault, many major US Internet companies such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft have for the last couple of years published ‘transparency reports’, in which they outline the number of requests for customer information they have received from various government agencies.
Now Telstra has done the same in Australia. Sort of. Its report is much less transparent than those published by the US Internet giants. Unlike their reports, Telstra’s report does not cover information handed over for national security related requests. Telstra says this is because it is illegal in Australia to publish such information.
“Our understanding of the Attorney-General’s Department’s position on requests by national security agencies is that reporting on these figures is prohibited under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979.”
We are thus none the wiser as to how much information ASIO, ASIS, or the shadowy Australian Signals Directorate (motto: ‘Reveal their secrets: protect our own’) have requested or been given. And it is called a ‘Transparency Report’.
Even though national security and government surveillance are much bigger issues in the US than they are in Australia, the US has a much more open disclosure regime. But an even bigger problem with the Telstra report is the paucity of the information it contains. There are just five lines of actual data.
The report shows that between 1 July and 31 December 2013, across a base of more than 26 million active retail services, Telstra received approximately 40,644 requests for customer information from various government agencies (excluding national security agencies). Of these, the vast majority (36,053, or 88.7%) were for ‘pre-warrant checks’ – i.e. for information in criminal cases – of carriage service records. There were 2,871 requests in life threatening and Triple Zero situations, 1,450 warrants for interception or access to stored information, and just 270 court orders.
Compare this sketchy information with that already reported each year, in great detail, in the annual report of Telecommunications Act, published by the Attorney General’s Department. It shows the numbers of applications and interceptions, which agencies made the requests, how many prosecutions and arrests they led to, and a wealth of other information.
We know from those reports that around 250,000 requests a year are made. Nevertheless, Telstra says its Transparency Report is the first of its kind in this country. “The aim of the report is to give our customers more information about our legal obligations as a telecommunications carrier,” said Kate Hughes, Telstra’s CRO (‘chief risk officer’), who released the report.
“We only disclose customer information in accordance with the law,” said Hughes. “We assess any request for information we receive from government agencies to make sure it complies with the law. “As digital technologies continue to evolve, community discussion around issues of law enforcement and national security are likely to continue. We hope our report makes a meaningful contribution to these discussions.”
She will no doubt continue to hope that – as it stands now it tells us very little. You can download it here . It contains just five lines of actual data and just a few pages describing terminology.
Very disappointing, Telstra.