ASIO more trusted than government with personal data

New AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin was forced to backtrack over comments suggesting metadata could be used to prevent online piracy. AAP/Alan Porritt

People are more inclined to trust ASIO and the police than the government and communications companies to store personal data, according to a poll published this week.

Following the introduction of the government’s legislation to require that metadata be kept by communications companies for two years, Essential asked people how much trust they had in various organisations to store personal data safely and in a way to prevent abuse.

More than half (53%) had a lot or some trust in security agencies such as the federal police, local police, and ASIO, while 42% had little or no trust.

A majority (54%) did not trust the government to do this; 42% did.

Nearly two thirds (63%) didn’t trust telecommunications companies and internet service providers – the ones which will be doing the storage - while 32% trusted them. An even higher proportion (70%) were distrustful of other private companies to safely store personal data.

People were divided over the basic question of retaining personal data, when asked which of two statements was closest to their view.

Some 41% agreed that “governments having access to personal telephone and internet information is necessary to protect society from terrorist or criminal actions”.

A marginally higher proportion, 44%, agreed that “governments are increasingly using the argument about terrorism to collect and store personal data and information, and this is a dangerous direction for society”.

As the debate about terrorism has raged, there has been a shift. Since this question was asked in August support for the first statement has risen from 37% to 41%; backing for the second has fallen from 49% to 44%.

But more people oppose than support the use of data retention to pursue “illegal downloaders” (47%-34%).

When the legislation was unveiled AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin said: “Illegal downloads, piracy, cyber crimes, cyber security … our ability to investigate them is absolutely pinned to our ability to retrieve and use metadata.”

But Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull played this down, saying those pursuing copyright issues usually dealt with the here and now.

Subsequently Colvin backtracked. “The Government’s introducing this to address vital needs of national security and law enforcement, not copyright. Copyright is essentially a civil matter…we will be using it for criminal matters.”

The poll found that mobile phones have become the main way people communicate with friends and family. They were nominated by 33%, followed by text messages (21%), landline phones (20%), email (10%) and Facebook (9%). Letters did not rate at all.