The former head of the Australian Human Rights Commission, professor Gillian Triggs, agreed to hand over one day's worth of her metadata to a digital rights group to see what they could learn about her.
Triggs left her position as the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission at the end of July after a tumultuous few years.
She came under fire from government politicians and conservative media commentators for publishing reports critical of the government's offshore detention of asylum seekers, and for the commission's role in processing complaints made under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
For the experiment, Triggs gave advocacy group Digital Rights Watch Australia access to a day's worth of her metadata — that is, data about how and when Triggs had used her email, social media, and her phone services — for the date of August 9.
In her former role Triggs was opposed to the Australian government's mandatory data retention legislation, as government agencies can access this type of data without a warrant, and telecommunications companies are required to keep the data for two years specifically for that purpose.
Triggs said she wasn't sure what she had signed up for.
"I think they just really wanted to see what the real impacts are on having access to metadata," Triggs told BuzzFeed News. "I know what I've given them, but I don't know precisely what they've discovered. My world is pure as the driven snow, so I am sure it'll be alright."
Triggs will be taken through what the group learnt from looking at her metadata at an "Understanding Metadata" event in Melbourne for the Melbourne Writer's Festival on Monday night, with digital rights experts Amy Gray and Vanessa Toholka, and former senator Scott Ludlam.
Despite being "pure as the driven snow" Triggs said she was still concerned about what they might find.
"It's profoundly alarming."
BuzzFeed News has seen some of the Triggs metadata obtained as part of the process, and it includes private work emails and planned meetings, phone calls, an application for a government service, and customer support emails.
It should be noted, however, that under the mandatory data retention regime, only emails tied to an internet service provider account are retained. Private and work emails through services like Google are not retained.
Triggs said her belief was that this sort of data should only be made available to government agencies when they get a judge to sign off on a warrant.
"We need the supervision of a duty judge," she said. "It's doable. Properly managed and run, and with the relevant authorities aware that they need a warrant...then I think the system could be made to work."
Law enforcement agencies have argued in the past that putting in place such a system would slow down police work in tracking down criminals and investigating national security threats. In the 2015-2016 financial year, there were over 325,000 applications from government agencies to access the data without a warrant. Very few of these uses were related to national security, but that was the main reason given for why the new regime was needed.
"History tends to suggest that access to information used by security services is rarely used ultimately for national security purposes; it's used for quite different purposes," Triggs said. "They overstate the need for it, and they do not have the kind of security and protocols around it that you would hope for."
Under the new regime, agencies have to get a warrant if they are going to access a journalist's metadata for the purpose of investigating a leak.
So far, there have only been a reported two warrants issued under this scheme, and the Australian Federal Police forgot to get one earlier this year before snooping through a journalist's metadata.
Triggs said that journalists shouldn't be a special case, and the warrants should apply to everyone.
"My view is that the journalists achieved this because they were in a sense the loudest and squeakiest wheel," she said. "They are well able to protect themselves, and they do so very effectively, but the rest of the Australian population really was completely in the dark about it."
Triggs said she understood the vital role metadata plays in law enforcement investigations, but said that ultimately the data is used for different purposes, or used incorrectly by the agencies without any sort of penalty.
"Understanding Metadata" is a free Melbourne Writer's Festival event in Melbourne tonight at Deakin Edge, Federation Square, from 8pm.
Josh Taylor is a Senior Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Josh Taylor at email@example.com.
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