Australians shouldn’t fear moves to collect and keep metadata as access to the information will be targeted and require authorisation, ASIO says.

The nation’s chief spy has underscored the terrorism threat to Australians to back the federal government’s plan to boost security by forcing telecommunications companies to store client metadata for at least two years.

The measure, which is part of a package announced by Prime Minister Tony Abbott earlier this week, has raised the ire of privacy groups who believe it’s unwarranted and will give security agencies greater licence to spy on people’s personal information without censure.

Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) boss David Irvine on Friday made a rare public appearance to hose down privacy concerns and calm the escalating debate about the proposed laws, which will be introduced in federal parliament later this year.

“This is not some great mass surveillance exercise for mass invasion of privacy of every citizen in Australia,” he said.

“It is very carefully targeted against those people who give us good reason to suspect they may be engaged in activities which are a threat to national security.”

The additional counter-terrorism laws will make small and large telephony and internet service providers collect and store metadata.

Mr Irvine described metadata as the “what, where, when and how” of telecommunications that discloses basic details such as IP addresses, billing addresses and the time and duration of communications.

“We have been accessing that data for many years, legally,” he said.

As the terrorism threat to Australia increases, Mr Irvine said ASIO needs to ensure all telcos collected and stored metadata, which the government proposes show by held for at least two years.

Privacy groups have spoken out against the plan while law and security experts have urged caution.

Australian Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim said there was potential under the new legislation for the retention of large quantities of personal information, increasing the risk of serious privacy breaches.

However, the proposals are backed by the Australian Federal Police, which champions the use of metadata in anti-terrorism matters, and state police commissioners.

AFP Deputy Commissioner Andrew Colvin said security agencies were simply asking for the protection of a well-used anti-crime tool.

“If we were to lose this either through data not being retained or changes to technology, our ability to solve crime and prevent crime would be severely impaired,” he said.

Mr Abbott denied the government had caused confusion on the issue, particularly in explaining what metadata would be retained, and insisted “we’ve been crystal clear all along”.

Mr Abbott this week said the government wouldn’t be asking service providers to do more than they currently were.

But Mr Irvine said telcos would have to step up current arrangements.

“Some of the start-ups (smaller service providers) are either not collecting the data or are not holding it for a very long time,” he said.

Australia’s terrorism threat level remains at medium – meaning an event “is likely and could occur”.

“My organisation is working in overload at the present time to deal with the way in which the terrorist threat … is suddenly starting to impact on Australian citizens,” Mr Irvine said.

Mr Irvine said he supported the current authorisation requirements necessary to access metadata.