Prime Minister Tony Abbott this morning contradicted representatives of the telecommunications and Internet service provider industries, saying that metadata related to individuals' Internet usage is already collected by ISPs.
The PM made the comments in an interview on Channel Nine's Today show. Abbott described metadata as "not what you're doing on the Internet; it's the sites you're visiting."
"It's not the content; it's just where you've been so to speak and if you look at what's on the front of the envelope, it's the person you've sent it to, it's the person sending it, it's the date and it's the place that it's posted from," the prime minister said.
"This is information that as I understand it is typically already kept by the Internet providers and there's some risk that as time goes by and as technology changes this information will no longer be kept," Abbott said.
Metadata is a "vital weapon" against terrorism and "against crime... more generally".
Abbott's claim that metadata is already retained by ISPs was contradicted by evidence given by industry figures at a hearing last week of an inquiry into potential reform of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979.
iiNet's chief regulatory officer, Steve Dalby, told the hearing that claims by the Attorney-General's Department that "service providers routinely engage in telecommunications data retention for their business purposes" were "overstated".
"Carriers only collect appropriate data for their businesses," the iiNet executive said. "There's a world of differences between the data collected in order to bill a customer for their Internet or telephone usage versus the collection of a mass of data generated by a customer during their sessions online. The data generated by telecommunications traffic massively outweighs the data required for ISPs and carriers to run their businesses."
The metadata generated by iiNet's telephone traffic could fit on a USB stick, Dalby said. However, the broader data retention scheme mulled by the government would require massive investment in storage and processing capacity.
"Industry has long had a concern about the level of information that is retained by itself for commercial purposes versus information retained for other purposes," the chief executive of the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, Chris Althaus, told the inquiry.
AMTA and the Communications Alliance have estimated that a data retention scheme could cost $500 million to establish.
The Attorney-General, George Brandis, has already introduced one tranche of national security legislation into parliament. However, that legislation did not include data retention but instead seeks to boost the powers of spy agencies. Unveiling the legislation Brandis confirmed the government was intending to introduce of a data retention scheme.
The push for a data retention scheme has drawn ire from civil liberties activists.
Yesterday Abbott told a press conference that the the National Security Committee of the Cabinet had endorsed the introduction of a data retention scheme.
"Obviously with the usual range of safeguards and warrants but that will include discussions with the telecommunications providers about the retention of metadata," Abbott said.
"That legislation has been approved in principle and is in development from today and will be introduced into Parliament later in the year," Brandis told the same press conference.
Data retention will form part of a third tranche of national security reform.