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The cops are coming for your data and laptops under ‘excessive’ surveillance bill

Crikey logo Crikey 10/08/2021 Cam Wilson
a close up of a person using a laptop computer: #29leaks formations house © Provided by Crikey #29leaks formations house

Human rights lawyers and the tech industry have criticised a proposed law that would give law enforcement “extraordinary” hacking and surveillance powers after federal politicians from both major parties gave their support to an amended version of the bill.

The influential Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security recommended passing the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill if a number of other changes were made, in a new report reviewing the legislation

The main thrust of the bill is the introduction of three new warrants. These include:

  • A data disruption warrant, which lets the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) modify, add, copy or delete data to stop and inhibit crimes
  • A network activity warrant, which gives police access to devices and networks belonging to suspected criminals
  • An account takeover warrant, which lets police take control of online accounts to gather evidence for an investigation.

Committee chair Coalition senator James Paterson announced the committee’s decision to recommend passing the legislation, citing all-time high rates of cybercrime during the COVID-19 pandemic as motivation. 

“The new warrants will give our law enforcement agencies effective powers to enable swift and decisive action against the rising challenge of serious online crime,” he said in a media release. 

The committee’s decision to recommend the Bill’s passage relies on the government accepting an additional 33 changes to the bill. 

The report made a series of recommendations including restricting the use of the powers to ensure powers are used “for the most serious of offending”, to tighten the definition of a “criminal network of individuals” and to restrict authorisation powers for the data disruption and network activity warrants to only Federal Court or state Supreme Court judges.

Recommendations for more oversight include requiring agencies to publish an annual unclassified report on the use of the powers, to report their use of powers to the Commonwealth Ombudsman every six months and to require the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor to review it after three years. The law should also have a sunset clause after five years, according to the committee.

The committee also recommended including further considerations when using the bill’s powers such as the impact on the privacy of third parties, providing good-faith immunity for those who are compelled to assist police and a requirement to return computer equipment as soon as reasonably possible.

Beyond the bill itself, the committee’s report also called to expand the PJCIS, Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security and the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s remits to include parts of the AFP and ACIC. 

The telco peak body Communications Alliance CEO John Stanton praised the committee’s report for sanding down the edges of the bill and introducing some of their recommended changes.

“Such sweeping proposed new powers for security agencies must come with appropriate checks, balances and protections,” Mr Stanton said.

Human Rights Law Centre legal director Daniel Webb went further in his criticism of the bill: “The extraordinary new powers being sought in this Bill would impact journalists and whistleblowers and go way beyond what is necessary and proportionate in a democracy.”

Webb criticised the federal government’s continued expansion of surveillance powers without a wholesale review of Australians’ privacy protections.

“We can’t keep marching towards increased government surveillance without comprehensive safeguards to protect our democracy and human rights,” he said.

The post The cops are coming for your data and laptops under ‘excessive’ surveillance bill appeared first on Crikey.

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