The data goldmine we need to lock up

Queensland's unfolding privacy debacle is a potent reminder of how little ability authorities have to protect personal data, which can be revealed by negligent as well as nefarious individuals.

The blowtorch has today been turned on one of Australia’s peak anti-corruption bodies – Queensland’s Crime and Misconduct Commission – for its own wrongdoing, for carelessly exposing critical secrets about unsolved crimes.

In a scramble to protect those secrets and the people endangered by the leak, the Queensland parliament early this morning rushed through unprecedented legislation while the rest of us were sleeping.

But leaping from Brisbane to Canberra, this Keystone Cops debacle provides another stunning reason to oppose the federal government’s plan to force internet and phone companies to keep the public’s most private information for two years, sitting on their servers as data mines for spooks like these.

Simply, it now seems that no one can be trusted to protect this very private data, not even our most trusted investigative bodies.

It’s not just hackers, snoops and perves we the public have to worry about but, it seems, slack public officials expressly charged with keeping secrets secret.

This story first broke earlier this week, when The Australian newspaper revealed on its front page that more than 7000 files, including National Crime Authority intelligence, "fiercely protected” by the 1980s Fitzgerald inquiry into corruption in Queensland, files intended to be protected until 2055, were mistakenly available for public inspection at the Queensland State Archives.

The door to this shocking breach of confidentiality was slammed shut immediately after the newspaper informed authorities and blew the whistle.

But even more extraordinary revelations yesterday suggest that the QCMC knew of this massive breach of state secrets as long ago as last May and did nothing to close it.

The QCMC is armed with extraordinary invasive powers. It’s Queensland’s only law enforcement agency granted the power to conduct coercive hearings, to compel people to attend and give evidence, to break the "wall of silence” that usually surrounds corruption.

Keeping secrets is the essential bread and butter of star-chamber bodies like this. So when they screw up – and this is a massive screw-up – it’s a grave concern that can wreck the public trust that’s essential for granting them such invasive powers.

Initially, QCMC head Ross Martin SC announced an internal probe but for Premier Campbell Newman the prospect of the QCMC investigating itself was quite rightly ridiculous and, in the early hours this morning, Queensland’s parliament rushed through legislation banning publication of the leaked files for 60 days to allow a Parliamentary Crime and Misconduct Committee to hold a public inquiry into the bungle.

What the parliamentary committee will probably deduce, after urgent and exhausting effort, huge expense, and even greater QCMC humiliation, is that this was little more than bureaucratic slackness, albeit of a shocking magnitude.

This is the key problem with data retention: it’s vulnerable 24-7 to a frightening array of risks, even if you’re assured on a stack of bibles that it’s tightly secured inside a bullet-proof, fireproof, hackproof electronic safe.

Remember the secret Defence Department files one of Australia’s most senior army officers left on a disk inside a computer in Melbourne’s Qantas Club lounge in 2006?

This new Queensland saga is a telling reason why bodies like the QCMC should be denied free access to your emails, internet searches, text messages and phone calls without your knowledge or without deep and sustained scrutiny.

But it’s a far, far better reason for preventing people who are not steeped in a culture of keeping secrets – internet and phone company employees – from being given charge of such a potential land mine, or perhaps gold mine of personal information about celebrities, public officials, business people and even you.

Who doesn’t love Hugh Jackman, for example?

Don’t tell me that some bored employee inside a telco with access to this teetering mountain of accumulated data won’t be tempted to have a little peak at Jackman’s files, and then possibly brag about the contents, or leak them to some gossip magazine.

What about selling information about a prime minister’s confidential health issues to a foreign power?

Or how about someone who simply wants to get rich from insider trading? Why bother sapping your brain toiling in a law firm or an investment bank where you’ll have access to a mere handful of juicy secrets, instead – if this federal government plan goes ahead – just insinuate yourself into a data role inside Telstra or Optus and sit yourself astride the biggest treasure trove of secrets imaginable.

At least Hugh Jackman’s got Wolverine to protect him and seek retribution.

Who have the rest of us got?

John M Green is a leading company director, commentator and novelist. His upcoming novel, The Trusted, an eco- and cyber-thriller is being released in April in paperback and ebook. Click here for a free chapter and book trailer.

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