The Australian Government today introduced a bill to expand the legislative powers of spy agencies, but has delayed putting forward legislation on a controversial proposal that would require telcos and other service providers to retain communications data for at least two years.
Attorney-General George Brandis today outlined the contents of his National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014 bill, which was introduced in Parliament late on Wednesday.
The proposed legislative changes contained in the bill are based on recommendations made last year by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which examined changes to interception of communications, access to data and the potential reform of telecommunications security in three relevant acts.
The Government will attempt to implement 21 of the 22 changes recommended by the fourth chapter of the report, in order to modernise the “outdated” ASIO Act of 1979 for a technologically-driven operating environment, Brandis said, and give intelligence agencies access to a new range of tools.
The bill modernises the way ASIO accesses computers - allowing one warrant for a computer to extend to all computers at a location and associated to the relevant person. The act will be amended such that the definition of “computer” in the Act includes all computers operating in a network.
“Very frequently, people use innocent computers to attack other networks. We need the ability to track that attack, including through the innocent third party computer,” ASIO Director-General David Irvine said.
It also proposes that only one warrant be required for a series of surveillance techniques conducted as part of an investigation - removing the need for a warrant for each individual surveillance effort.
The proposed legislation would also allow Australia’s foreign intelligence agency ASIS to collect information on Australians located outside the country and share it with ASIO - which the agency is currently required to seek ministerial approval to do.
“In the current operating environment there is a need to know what Australians are up to, particularly if they are going to come home and commit terrorist acts in Australia. It’s been very difficult to collect information on them,” Irvine said.
Despite a previous decision to axe the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, the Government today said the Office would remain in order to deal with the influx of new security legislation the Government hopes to pass by the end of the year.
“We are not going to proceed with abandoning the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor. It was an economy measure, to do with budget savings, we thought it was something we might have to do,” Brandis said today.
“Given there is extensive new legislation being introduced by the Government, it was a good idea to retain the Office.”
The bill will be reviewed by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security until September 8 and is expected to be rubber-stamped with little changes.
No data retention - yet
Both the Coalition and the former Labor Government have proposed new rules forcing telecommunications companies to store user data for a minimum period of two years, but the controversial proposal has yet to arise in a bill.
A mandatory data retention scheme - first proposed by Labor - was also a main feature of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security’s 2013 report, but has received strong criticism from both industry, privacy advocates and the Greens.
Critics say it would financially burden telcos and therefore their end users, while unfairly labelling all citizens as potential criminals.
Labor’s proposal was shelved after it failed to provide enough information on its bill to the parliamentary committee investigating the plan.
Australia’s state and federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies have offered strong support for the scheme.
The Attorney-General’s Department has previously signalled its support for the proposal and the assistance it would provide to intelligence services, counter-terrorism and law enforcement investigations, but conceded it raises privacy issues.
Brandis said today the proposal was under “active consideration”, but the Government had not yet made a decision on whether to push for its implementation.
“As recently as yesterday the [UK] House of Commons passed a new data retention statute. This is very much the way in which western nations are going,” Brandis said.
ASIO’s Irvine said mandatory data retention was “absolutely crucial” to law enforcement and intelligence investigations.
“Almost every ASIO investigation and a very large number of law enforcement investigations depend at least in the first instance on access to retained data, telecommunications data, call data, that’s been retained by the telephone companies," he said. "We don’t collect it and retain it ourselves.”