IN THE middle of a spying scandal, the police have revealed the extent to which they're snooping on your personal information.
South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon says the discovery of just how much data police and other agencies can collect and how easily they can track people will have a "chilling effect".
"If people feel they're going to be tracked, that will have a chilling effect on members of the public, public servants coming forward to MPs or journalists in order to provide information," he said.
"I think that will have a chilling effect on accountability and on free speech."
Some details of surveillance were uncovered during questioning of Australian Federal Police Commissioner Tony Negus, in which he revealed that a number of MPs' communication records have been targeted.
Senator Xenophon said it was particularly concerning because "records are being obtained in the context of whistleblower investigations".
"If a number of MPs were subject to these orders, how many journalists would be as well?" he asked.
The issue has arisen as technological capabilities have quickly outstripped the existing laws.
Metadata is all the information contained in a message except for the actual content of a message.
That means agencies can still see who a person is talking to or emailing, when, and how often, which could easily reveal the source of confidential information.
Professor Clinton Fernandes, a University of NSW lecturer and expert on surveillance, spoke about recent scandals involving the US National Security Agency, and said what is happening there could be happening here, but we just "don't know".
The collection of information was a "democracy issue" with "very serious privacy implications", he said. He also showed how metadata can be used to track a person's movements, and how it can be processed to pinpoint, for example, a public servant or other whistleblower who is trying to lift the lid on corruption.
Senator Xenophon said there was no question that MPs and others should be investigated if there are suspicions of crimes, but that the AFP had confirmed MPs had been targeted under sections of the Crime Act that relate to whistleblowers.
"If an MPs being investigated for corrupt practices or bribery or anything like that, then I think there's no question they should be subjected to the same rules, but if it's a public servant that wants to come to an MP, we can't guarantee they'll be projected."
He and Greens Senator Scott Ludlam said they wanted the laws reformed to provide safeguards for journalists and MPs.