Fed Uni could store emails

Phone and email records of Federation University students and staff could be stored for up to two years as it struggles to comply with data retention laws.

The Mount Helen-based university put out a tender for a “solution” to meet its requirements under the federal government’s controversial reforms on the website tendersearch.com.au in April last year.  

But this week deputy vice-chancellor Darren Holland said in a statement the university did not pursue its tender request, opting instead to complete the work in-house.

“The university is working towards its legislative obligations of the data retention legislation and will be compliant by the due date,” he said.

It has been unclear what universities should do since the reforms were announced back in 2014, when Attorney-General George Brandis struggled to explain what metadata was in an infamous live TV interview.

The laws were designed to help combat terrorism and organised crime by storing peoples metadata, which is data that describes information about other data.

For example, it does not include what is typed in an email but does include who a person sent it to. And it tracks who a person calls but not what is said on the phone.

University of Canberra law academic Bruce Arnold called on Federation University to explain what it was doing more clearly. “We could regard it as a missed opportunity to head to best practice by fully engaging with students,” he said.

“Universities both should and can explain why they are adopting particular policy positions.”

A spokesman for the Attorney-General’s Department said: “If a university offers a service that falls under the data retention legislation – for example a wi-fi service available to the general public – it may have data retention obligations. Typically services only offered to a university’s own staff and students are excluded from the obligations.”

But Mr Arnold blasted the department for a lack of transparency.

“The reference to ‘may’ have obligations is disquieting,” he said. 

“Does the department not know?

“Does it know, but consistent with the Attorney-General’s apparent inability to provide a clear explanation of ‘metadata’, consider that there is no need to provide clarity?

“It is disappointing that the government – with little dissent from the opposition – has not meaningfully engaged with the community about retention and is indifferent to erosion of the already weak protections.

“Ultimately, if they can’t explain – or can’t be bothered to explain – why should we trust them?”