Australia passes Bill for telcos to retain customers' data, amid privacy abuse concerns

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia's Upper House on Thursday passed a controversial law requiring telecommunication firms to retain customers' digital data for two years as part of a range of counter-terrorism measures, despite fears by privacy advocates of abuse.

The law was passed with the support of the Labor opposition, and received 43 votes in favour with 16 votes against. It was passed by the Lower House of Representatives last week. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott earlier on Thursday did not say how much it would cost to implement the law but added his conservative government would make "an appropriate upfront contribution to the cost" to the telecommunications industry.

The Liberal-National coalition government said the legislation was a central tool for law enforcement and intelligence agencies in their fight against terrorism. "By passing this Bill, the Parliament has ensured that our security and law enf.orcement agencies will continue to have access to the information they need to do their jobs," Attorney-General George Brandis and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a joint statement. "No responsible government can sit by while those who protect us lose access to vital information, particularly in the current high threat environment."

The data retention legislation has been slammed by privacy advocates, who say Australians would be vulnerable to the misuse of their personal or private information by the nation's security agencies. The opposition Greens party, which voted against the Bill in the Senate, described the law as "a form of mass surveillance".

"Surveillance should be targeted, proportionate and levelled at serious criminals, organised crime and national security threats. This Bill entrenches the opposite," Greens Senator Scott Ludlam said in a statement after the Bill was passed.

"The government won't disclose the costs of the scheme, is silent on the risk of unauthorised disclosure, and at no stage has been able to point to evidence that collecting the private records of 23 million non-suspects will keep people safer or reduce the crime rate," he said.

The law has also been criticised as impinging on press freedom, a charge refuted by Mr Brandis and Mr Turnbull, who said the government had incorporated several protections for journalists.

"The Bill contains new and strengthened safeguards... no comparable nations will have greater pre-authorisation approval and post-authorisation oversight requirements for journalists," they said.

Mr Abbott last month warned of a long era of heightened threats from "homegrown" extremists and announced new security measures including revoking citizenship for dual-nationals linked to terrorism.

Canberra raised its threat level to high in September and has since carried out a series of raids amid alarm over the departure of some 90 of its nationals to Iraq and Syria to fight with jihadist groups.

In December, Man Haron Monis - a gunman with a history of extremist views - took 17 people hostage at Sydney cafe. Two hostages were killed in the hours-long seige, one by Monis and the other by a ricocheting bullet when police stormed the building.