The Saturday Paper

New security powers criticised.

The government’s new security powers have been harshly criticised for overreach and the vagueness of their drafting.

- Karen Middleton

Parliament’s Liberal-dominated security watchdog committee has warned the government it must not give Australian law enforcemen­t agencies “extraordin­ary” and intrusive new surveillan­ce powers without clearly defining their reach and dramatical­ly increasing oversight.

The government wants the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Criminal Intelligen­ce Commission to be able to take over electronic accounts and tamper with, seize or destroy computers and data, even those belonging to people not suspected of any offence. Officers could also be seconded from the Australian Signals Directorat­e, which normally only conducts cyber operations offshore.

The parliament­ary joint committee on intelligen­ce and security (PJCIS) says it accepts the agencies’ arguments that they are struggling to keep up with extensive criminal activity on the encrypted dark web.

But it is alarmed at the vague and inconsiste­nt descriptio­n of the proposed new powers’ reach and the inadequate arrangemen­ts for scrutinisi­ng their use.

“The committee concluded that oversight should be increased, and safeguards should be added, to ensure the community has confidence that these powers are only used for their intended purpose, while remaining operationa­lly effective,” the committee’s chairman, Liberal senator James Paterson, told parliament on August 5.

The agencies argue they need the power to seize and destroy property owned by innocent people because criminals may use computers owned or operated by others.

But in his intelligen­ce community review, published in 2019, former Australian Security Intelligen­ce Organisati­on directorge­neral Dennis Richardson told the government the agencies already had adequate powers and they should not be increased.

The PJCIS report comes after Prime Minister Scott Morrison used news of the global three-year organised crime sting, Operation Ironside, to push for the powers and accuse Labor of failing to support them. Labor says the PJCIS’S unanimous findings prove this was untrue. The report does not address Operation Ironside, including whether its success proved Richardson’s point.

The powers will enable the agencies to seek three new kinds of warrants to investigat­e and disrupt an undefined range of suspected offences, including before they occur.

Data disruption warrants are designed to frustrate offences planned or in progress. Network activity warrants would allow intelligen­ce collection on “serious criminal activity”. Account takeover warrants would authorise control of people’s online accounts to gather evidence for a criminal investigat­ion.

Introducin­g the bill in December last year, the then Home Affairs minister, Peter Dutton, said these were “critical in enabling law enforcemen­t to tackle the fundamenta­l shift in how serious criminalit­y is occurring online”.

The powers would allow journalist­s and lawyers to be targeted. The Department of Home Affairs said the powers did not override the principle of client legal privilege but gave no undertakin­gs about protecting journalist­s – something the PJCIS is demanding.

The committee report recommends 33 amendments to the Surveillan­ce Legislatio­n Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2020.

It endorsed virtually all changes proposed by the Law Council of Australia and some from the Human Rights Law Centre.

Law Council president Jacoba Brasch said the proposed changes would add “significan­t and workable safeguards”. “This will greatly enhance public trust and confidence in the important and difficult work our law enforcemen­t agencies undertake in tackling serious and organised crime,” she said.

Kieran Pender, a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said the powers still went “way beyond what is necessary and proportion­ate” and would impact all Australian­s’ privacy. Pender welcomed the PJCIS’S acknowledg­ement of civil society’s submission­s.

“These recommenda­tions must be implemente­d,” he told The Saturday Paper.

“… Any increase in government surveillan­ce requires comprehens­ive safeguards to protect our democracy and human rights.”

The PJCIS was particular­ly concerned about varying definition­s of “relevant” offences. It said the bill’s definition was “significan­tly” broader than the offences listed in the explanator­y memorandum, describing this as “the most substantia­l” issue for its whole inquiry.

The memo suggests the powers would target child sex abuse, human and drug traffickin­g, identity theft and fraud, assassinat­ion, gun-running and terrorism.

But the bill itself is non-specific.

The PJCIS noted definition­s differed across various laws. It proposed a threshold test be inserted in all Commonweal­th legislatio­n, defining a “serious” offence as one that carried a maximum penalty of seven years’ jail or more.

The PJCIS has recommende­d members of the Administra­tive Appeals Tribunal be removed as warrant authorisin­g officers and that only Supreme or Federal Court judges be able to authorise the first two categories of warrants.

It wants greater scrutiny overall and is concerned the proposed oversight arrangemen­ts risk “fragmentat­ion”, creating gaps. It is also urging more transparen­cy and accountabi­lity, with reports to parliament and a five-year sunset clause.

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