Australian Federal Police illegally Obtained Journalist's Phone Records

    May 08, 2017

    The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) illegally obtained a journalist's phone records under the Turnbull government's new metadata retention regime.

    The breach occurred while the department investigated a leak of confidential police material. The Commonwealth ombudsman will look into the incident.

    AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin said the officers investigating the leak didn’t know they needed to get a warrant to access the journalist's metadata.

    "This was human error. It should not have occurred. The AFP takes it very seriously and we take full responsibility for breaching the Act," Colvin said in a press appearance. "There was no ill will or malice or bad intent by the officers involved who breached the Act. But simply it was a mistake."

    The journalist in question had not been told his or her data had been accessed, Colvin said, due to the sensitive nature of the ongoing investigation into the leak.

    The breach occurred "earlier this year" and was reported to the ombudsman in late April.

    In the revised data retention regime, police must obtain a warrant from a judge before accessing metadata from a journalist. The phone records were relevant to the investigation, Colvin said, but "what was improper was that the right steps weren't taken to gain access to it."

    The breach is the first to surface under the government's new metadata retention regime, which requires service providers to store their customers' data for two years.

    Colvin conceded the AFP's internal procedures had failed and therefore those practices would be subject to "significant changes." Access to metadata will be restricted to more senior officers, and the number of officers who can approve access to metadata will be reduced. In addition, training will also be bolstered.

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