LOCAL councils are seizing data from residents' mobile phones without warrants to chase unregistered pets, illegal rubbish dumping and unauthorised advertising.Federal surveillance laws enable enforcement agencies -- such as police, corruption watchdogs and the Australian Taxation Office -- to seize telecommunications data to conduct criminal investigations, enforce fines or protect public revenue. But the laws are increasingly being used by other public bodies, such as local governments and Australia Post, which have collectively made more than 800 self-authorisations for personal data in the past three financial years.
Telecommunications data, which is often described as "metadata", includes the names and addresses of telephone users and lists of their calls, text messages and emails. It also includes users' locations at the time they make a call, but does not include the text or audio of communications.
Australia Post, which made 772 authorisations for metadata between July 2009 and June last year, declined to say which laws imposing fines or protecting public revenue were being cited to obtain the data.
"Australia Post's access to this information is necessary and appropriate for the proper investigation and prosecution of offences against commonwealth law," a spokeswoman said.
Wyndham City Council, in Melbourne's west, confirmed it had made 33 authorisations for metadata in the past two financial years, 15 of which were to investigate illegal litter. Seven authorisations related to domestic animals, and 11 others dealt with unauthorised obstructions, distractions, advertising and graffiti.
"In all of these cases, the only information requested and received was the telephone subscriber's name and address," chief executive Kerry Thompson said.
"In these cases the investigation could not proceed without these details, so in that context, Wyndham City views the ability to access subscriber information as very important." Five cases went to court, resulting in penalties and costs totalling $13,700.
Two council officers are permitted to request metadata from telcos.
A similar system is in use at Bankstown City Council in Sydney's southwest. Four authorisations for metadata were given there last financial year, all related to litter. "The information requested as a result of the authorisations was for the ownership details of telephone numbers discovered during investigations of illegal waste matters . . . None of the four cases went to court," spokesman Mehmed Casli said.
"The authorisations are considered an important element in council's ability to investigate (illegal waste) offences."
Australian Privacy Council chairman Roger Clarke said he was "surprised and concerned" about the councils' activities.
"I was unaware that such powers had ever been extended beyond agencies whose primary functions related to the enforcement and prosecution of serious crimes," he said.
Labor is supporting a controversial plan to force telcos to store telecommunications data for up to two years as a defence against organised crime and terrorism.
A total of 10,936 authorisations for metadata were made last financial year to enforce fines or protect public revenue, up from 6704 two years earlier.
Enforcement agencies also made 293,501 authorisations for metadata to enforce criminal law.
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