Future Wise has been against data retention since the beginning. Before coming together to start the organisation we were against it as individuals. Retention is a terrible idea for a million reasons, but one of the biggest we have always argued is that it represents a publicly visible opportunity for every organisation that would rather like to peruse your life without a warrant to do so. The government has repeatedly rebuffed this idea as fanciful.

On November 3rd last year I wrote to the attorney general’s department to request all the correspondence – emails, letters, faxes etc. – in which an agency not entitled to go through your Internet history asked to be included in the list of agencies that could.  The department responded two weeks later with a letter that’s referred to sometimes as “a 24AA” after the section of the Freedom of Information act that allows agencies to refuse to provide information in response to a request because to do so would be so difficult and time consuming that it couldn’t continue to do what it is otherwise meant to do. It turns out that there was so much communication between the department and government agencies, that to find it all, assess what should and shouldn’t be shared, and get it to me, would bring the department to a halt.

Knowing a little about the process for Freedom of Information requests, I took a shot at a clever trick. If you think about what might happen when a department receives a request like that, and advises you that they intend to ignore you because it’s too hard, you might be able to imagine that some internal emails went backwards and forward.  Stuff like “this person has asked for all this information”, and replies saying “but there’s so much of it, here’s a list of the people we’d need to check with before we could send correspondence to the requester!”  Keen to not have the request put in the too-hard basket, I modified my request in response to the 24AA, to include any documents which now listed those agencies.  I don’t want their rationale for asking, or whether or not they were given what they asked for, or anything else at all that might give the department a good reason to tell me to go away.  But the department had one trick left in their bag, money.

The department finally agreed they’d let me, and therefore everyone else in Australia, know who was going to be browsing through their online tracks without a warrant or any serviceable oversight whatsoever.  It was just going to cost $523.33.  I eyeballed the change box I keep on the bedside table and realised I was going to need help, so I put the call out to anyone who might have a dollar to spare.

I’ve never crowdfunded before, but Who Wants to Spy on Me was pretty successful for a crowdfunder with L plates on. Have a look at my inbox.

From launch at 3:12pm on the 21st of November, the project was 30% funded by 3:50pm. It went on to be fully funded by 5:52pm – two and a half hours later. I was absolutely astonished, but pulled it together enough for a casual “Ok, I’ll pay” letter to the AGD.  The final payment was sent on the 15th of January, and the information released the following Monday.

So here it is. Here’s the folks that can browse through your stuff, if you haven’t already seen the tonne of media coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald, on Sky News, and in various other outlets such as ZDNet (who had their own similar FOI request in which was narrowed to the same result as mine) and IT News.  There are 35,600 stories indexed by Google News at the time of writing.

Four agencies have been left out.  The attorney general’s department warned that if they were included it may “degrade the relationship between them and the commonwealth”  It is interesting to note however the list was provided in alphabetical order, so the first redacted agency (as an example), is somewhere between “co” and “de” in the alphabet. The third is between Mi and Pr, because they are the first distinct pattern after “Department of”.

I’ll leave that tidbit as an exercise for the reader.

Australian Financial Security Authority
Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency
Australian Postal Corporation
Australian Taxation Office
Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre
Civil Aviation Safety Authority
Clean Energy Regulator
Department of Agriculture
Department of Defence
Department of the Environment
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Department of Health
Department of Human Services
Department of Social Services
Fair Work Building and Construction
National Measurement Institute
ACT Revenue Office
Access Canberra (Department of Treasury and Economic Development)
Bankstown City Council
Consumer Affairs – Victoria
Consumer, Building and Occupational Services – Tasmania
Consumer and Business Services – SA
Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry – Queensland
Department of Commerce – WA
Department of Corrective Services – WA
Department of Environment and Heritage Protection – Queensland
Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources – Victoria
Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning – Victoria
Department of Environment Regulation – WA
Department of Fisheries – WA
Department of Justice and Regulation (Consumer Affairs) – Victoria
Department of Justice and Regulation (Sheriff of Victoria)
Department of Mines and Petroleum – WA
Department of Primary Industries (Fisheries) – NSW
Environment Protection Authority – SA
Greyhound Racing Victoria
Harness Racing New South Wales
Health Care Complaints Commission – NSW
Legal Services Board – Victoria
NSW Environment Protection Authority
NSW Fair Trading
Office of Environment and Heritage – NSW
Office of Fair Trading – Queensland
Office of State Revenue – NSW
Office of State Revenue – Queensland
Office of the Racing Integrity Commissioner – Vic
Primary Industries and Regions South Australia
Queensland Building and Construction Commission
Racing and Wagering Western Australia
Racing NSW
Racing Queensland
Roads and Maritime Service NSW
Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) – Victoria
State Revenue Office – Victoria
Taxi Services Commission – Victoria
Revenue SA
Victorian WorkSafe Authority

I’ll be writing on this more. We’re not done. There’s questions to ask and they’re already being asked about why agencies like the RSPCA, Australia Post, and Bankstown Council need warrantless mass electronic surveillance capabilities.

Thanks everyone for your support.

Image credit: a spy who came in from the cold - by Gerard Stolk via Flikr- CC-BY-NC-2.0