Australia shelves plans to store phone, Internet metadata

CANBERRA Mon Jun 24, 2013 5:30am EDT

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CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia's government on Monday shelved plans to force phone and Internet companies to hold two years of phone call and email data following concerns raised by a parliamentary inquiry into telecommunications interception laws.

The move follows long-running criticism by privacy advocates in Australia, and comes in the aftermath of revelations in the United States, where spy agency contractor Edward Snowden exposed secret U.S. surveillance of vast amounts of Internet data under a program known as Prism.

The government had wanted phone and Internet companies to hold metadata for two years to help fight criminal activity, but lawmakers on the telecommunications inquiry called for changes.

They said Internet browsing data should be excluded from the plans, and called for greater oversight of government agency access to telecommunications data by the ombudsmen and the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus responded to the inquiry findings by delaying any changes until after the September 14 parliamentary election and only after further consultations.

"The government will not pursue a mandatory data retention regime at this time and will await further advice," Dreyfus said in a statement after the report was tabled.

Conservative opposition lawmakers, who are expected to win power in September, have raised concerns about surveillance of cloud server data stored in the United States, but are still likely to support the new laws in Australia if they take office.

The influential Australian Greens Party, which holds the balance of power in the upper house, said the security and intelligence committee report reflected political and privacy concerns first raised last year about plans to collect and store the telephone and email data of all Australians.

"This report refused to endorse data retention and condemned Government's secretive approach," said Greens communications spokesman Scott Ludlum.

The report did not specifically mention the Prism program, as its hearings were completed before the Snowden revelations about Prism.

But the inquiry's report did raise concerns about the wide number of Australian government agencies able to access private data, with 293,501 requests made in 2011-12 to access communications data without a warrant.

(Reporting by James Grubel; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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