Victorians’ private phone and email records spied on by councils, government departments and other organisations


Victorians’ private phone and email records are being spied on without warrants by non-police bodies such as Wyndham City Council, the RSPCA and even the state’s taxi directorate.

A telecommunications annual report reveals dozens of government departments including WorkSafe, the Department of Health and Ageing, Medicare and Australia Post accessed personal information to investigate the public.

Last year 304,437 authorisations were granted, up 20 per cent on the 2010-2011 total of 251,733.

While the content of phone calls and emails cannot be obtained without a warrant, communications data, also known as metadata, can.

It includes the names and addresses of telephone users and lists of their calls, text messages and emails.

Among those concerned are privacy advocates who have questioned why invasive powers were being exercised by some of the state’s smallest organisations. The only Victorian council to access metadata, Wyndham got 11 authorisations last year, and 20 the year before.

Two council officers are permitted to request metadata from telcos.

It is understood that the council seized data from residents’ mobile phones to chase minor matters such as unregistered pets and illegal rubbish dumping.

Wyndham council declined to comment.

Under federal surveillance laws, Telstra and other telcos have to hand over metadata when requested by authorised employees of government departments or agencies.

The Attorney-General is told once a year which agencies access this type of information.

WorkSafe spokesman Peter Flaherty said on rare occasions WorkSafe requested metadata to investigate occupational health and safety.

“As the small number of requests suggests, it is used to further an investigation only when absolutely necessary,” Mr Flaherty said.

Executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre, Hugh De Kretser, said the current legislation set the bar far too low regarding which agencies could monitor private information.

“When you broaden access to surveillance technology it brings obvious risks,” he said.

A joint parliamentary committee is looking at whether appropriate safeguards are in place for protecting human rights.

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