The Australian Government made the highest amount of requests for data sharing in criminal investigations with foreign countries in the 12 months to June 30, 2012 than it has since 2005.
Over 2011 and 2012, the Federal Government made 263 new requests for mutual assistance from other governments. Prior to that, its highest amount of requests in the past eight years was around around 225 requests in 2007.
Mutual assistance is the process governments use to obtain and receive information in criminal investigations and prosecutions, and is generally used when a country requires a search warrant or similar court order to obtain court-admissible material.
The Attorney-General’s Department said the amount of mutual assistance requests in any year reflected the number of criminal investigations or prosecutions needing overseas material or assistance.
It declined to provide a breakdown on the type of assistance, crime type or country requiring assistance in order to “protect the integrity of ongoing law enforcement operations.”
It similarly declined to comment on how many instances involved accessing local user data from the nine technology companies participating in the US Government’s controversial PRISM program.
But the latest Transparency Report for Google, one of the companies named in the PRISM program, showed Australia was the seventh most frequent requester of user data in the world. The United States topped the list.
In 2012, Australian governmental agencies made 1107 requests for user data and 1552 for account details to Google, compared to 805 and 908 respectively in 2011.
The Australian Federal Police said accessing data related to such companies was dependent on the location of the relevant entity and required a mutual assistance request. Further questions by iTnews were directed to the Attorney-General’s Department.
The Government last year made amendments to the Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Act 1987 and the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 in order to make it easier to share information between countries.
The reforms under the Extradition and Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Amendment Act 2012 allow information obtained under an interception or stored communications warrant to be provided directly to another country, following an approved mutual assistance request.
Prior to last year’s amendments, foreign countries were only able to obtain information through a magistrate.
The revised rules also allow the Australian Federal Police to access communications data from local carriers on behalf of a foreign agency, and disclose it to the requesting agency.
The amendments came into effect in late 2012 and will be reported for the first time in the latest TIA Act annual report, which will be tabled later this year.
The AFP said the effectiveness of the provisions could not be assessed until they have been operational for a reasonable period of time. The Attorney-General's department said it did not expect a rise in mutual assistance requests as a result of the new powers.
The Australian Government can refuse mutual assistance requests if it relates to a political offence, a military offence, if the offence would incur the death penalty, or where a request would damage the sovereignty, security or national interest of Australia.
Since the earliest published report in 2005 no mutual assistance requests have been refused.
On average, Australia receives more requests for mutual assistance than it makes.
In the year ending June 30 2012, foreign countries lodged 387 mutual assistance requests with Australia, the second highest amount since around 420 requests were made in 2010-11.
The Attorney General’s Department declined to provide a breakdown of the countries that issued the 387 requests.