Attorney-general Nicola Roxon is planning a raft of new powers for ASIO to intercept and store any individual’s information. The move follows the adoption of new laws that allow Australia’s spy agencies to target individuals and organisations that oppose the government's interests — nicknamed the “WikiLeaks amendment”.
Several proposed changes to telecommunications interception and access laws, as well as the Intelligence Services Act 2001, would expand ASIO’s powers of surveillance and reduce government oversight of ASIO activities.
Current laws make ASIO apply for separate warrants for each form of communication it wants to monitor. The warrants expire after 90 days. The new powers would allow ASIO to use a single “super warrant” to tap phones, computers, programs, tablets and even video games for up to six months without renewal.
The attorney-general would be able to change or update the warrant without the knowledge of the subject of surveillance.
It could also force internet providers and mobile carriers to keep user data for two years and even assist in decrypting files, allowing any ASIO agent to retrospectively search your emails, internet use, text messages and computer data at any time without your knowledge.
This notion that everyone's digital information would be trapped and recorded to aid spying later has barely been scrutinised by the mainstream media, and only the federal Greens have challenged the laws.
Roxon said the proposed laws would only bring surveillance warrants in line with ASIO’s other warrant powers, which include entry and search, detention and questioning, and tracking of suspects.
She said the proposed changes would be reviewed by public hearings via the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, which would report back to the government at the end of July. The government would then “consider” its findings before drafting legislation.
On May 4 Roxon said the changes are necessary to “stay one step ahead of the terrorists … who threaten our national security”.
But Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon said the government had failed to show any terror threat to “justify any expansion”. She said that gave the impression the government was “beating the law-and-order drum to distract from their own failings”.
Australian Lawyers Alliance president Greg Barns said in a May 10 ABC Drum Opinion article that the plans were “dangerous” and “potentially involve major incursions into, and erosion of, liberties”.
“Imagine, for example, how a Julian Assange would have been dealt with under these laws. It would have been ridiculously easy for ASIO and others to surveil every device Mr Assange used — his mobile phone, laptop, iPad and whatever else.
“If he were found to be getting his hands on some decent leaks which the government did not want to see the light of day, then the attorney-general could vary the warrant to ensure such materials were captured. There would be no scrutiny by a court for six months.”
The WikiLeaks amendment, pushed through parliament in March with only Greens opposition, streamlines the extradition process to make it easier for foreign governments to extradite people from Australia. It also allows people in Australia to be prosecuted for overseas crimes.
The Australian Pirate Party said the potential new laws were an addition to “Australia’s already overbearing security theatre”. The party's secretary, Brendan Molloy, said on May 7: “Nothing about warrants should be streamlined. It is an affront to due process to weaken judicial principles in the name of 'counter-terrorism', which seems to be the catch-cry of anyone unjustly wanting more power.”
As it announced the proposed new laws, the government also announced several deals it had made with the US government, with no public scrutiny, to increase data sharing and information on Australian citizens.
Roxon, home affairs minister Jason Clare and US secretary of homeland security Janet Napolitano met in Canberra to sign off on plans to share “law enforcement data” and monitor international cargo and passengers.
Ostensibly to obstruct “violent extremism”, critics have pointed out that such powers and information-sharing have been used against peace activists such as Scott Parkin in the past. Crackdowns and spying on the Occupy movement and climate change activists also highlight the dangers of Australia being obligated to hand over information to the US about its citizens.
Ever-growing suspicion and fear of people from Arab and Muslim backgrounds in Australia could also mean ASIO abuses its secretive powers. Labor MP Maria Vamvakinou recently told the Herald Sun that ASIO and federal police have showed a “special interest” in suburbs with “high populations” of Muslim people.
Stoking anti-Muslim rhetoric, the Herald Sun said on May 16 that the attorney-general’s department “admitted several places” were identified as “potential breeding grounds for terrorism”. Vamvakinou said suburbs in her electorate with big Muslim communities were aware they were “under surveillance”.
But she said they live “pretty much ordinary lives”.
Rhiannon said the government should not go ahead with further expanding ASIO’s powers until it reviews the sweeping changes made by the former Coalition government.
Then-prime minister John Howard introduced a huge expansion to ASIO and federal police powers after the September 2001 terror attacks, which included the power to detain people and prevent them from contacting anybody. The UN human rights committee recommended the Anti-Terrorism Bill 2005 be reviewed and doubted it complied with the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.