Police Are Tracking Phone & Web Habits to Snare Drug Crime

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When it comes to indiscriminately sweeping up metadata from internet and cellphone users, Australia is the worldwide leader. Police down under have also either been deliberately misleading with why they want all your information—or simply can’t be trusted not to ramp up the War on Drugs when given the opportunity.

Since massive data retention in the name of law and order became de rigueur in 2015—sold to the public as a vital tool to protect national security and fight terrorism—Australian police have vacuumed up more metadata per capita than counterparts in the U.S., U.K. and Canada.

All data, like IP addresses visited and location information for phones, must be retained for at least two years—and is accessible without a warrant. But more data is available with a judge’s permission, and so Australian magistrates have duly issued more warrants authorizing data collection than their allies in the war on terror.

Such comprehensive data collection isn’t cheap.

The program cost AU$200 million and is by any measure an intrusion into privacy and an erosion of civil liberties, but that was a “small price to pay” for freedom, as the country’s onion-chomping Prime Minister Tony Abbott said at the time. (It bears mentioning that the U.K. had been the target of several terrorist attacks during that time, including the grisly suicide bombing at an arena concert attended by adolescents and children in Manchester, and Australia has been spared such carnage.)

Authorities have vigorously defended their eager use of new crime-fighting tools.

In 2016, when news of Australian police’s notable propensity to peek at metadata first became known, a police spokesman indicated that data retention was used to monitor only the more heinous of criminals.

“Metadata is a critical tool for our law enforcement and security agencies in their fight against terrorism, espionage, organized and major crime, and child abuse and child exploitation,” police told the Huffington Post.

But as reviews by academics and by the national attorney general’s office have revealed, the vast majority of data request have nothing to do with extremism lurking on the internet or online-bred terrorism. Instead, Australian police are monitoring citizens’ web browser histories and cellphone records to pursue drug dealers and drug users.

As CNET reported this week, the “use of metadata to police drug crime outstrips its use for terrorism by a factor of more than 10 to one.”

In the top 17 categories of crime for which metadata was sought, terrorism ranked 17th, behind fraud, theft, assault and “unlawful entry.”

Not that Australians are against employing high-tech tactics in the old-school War on Drugs, even indiscriminately.

“Whatever we say about the use of this data, it’s drug offenses that are the major issue,” said Rob Nicholls, a professor and researcher who authored a report last year with identical findings.

Why not sell it to the people that way? Easy—because it might not fly, and it’s much easier to ply on peoples’ most basic fears by invoking the specter of terrorism.

“It’s a lot easier to sell the public that this is a national security issue than it is to say to the parliament and the public, ‘Actually what we want to do is get drugs off the street,'” Nicholls told CNET. “The real issue is Australians have the right to be pissed off that politicians underestimate their intelligence.”

As ZDNet reported, Australian police have also “accidentally” accessed a journalist’s call records under the policy.   

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