State and territory corrective services agencies will be offered new powers to access the telecommunications data of inmates in a bid to combat crimes committed using smuggled mobile phones.
But Corrective Services NSW will not have to wait until the laws are passed to begin accessing data after the federal government temporarily granted the agency access at the request of the NSW government.
The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Corrective Services Authorities) Bill 2022, introduced on Thursday, is intended to help authorities identify and investigate mobile phone-related crime in prisons.
Such a change was first flagged in the review of the country’s national intelligence community, which recommended extending the powers to corrective services agencies and financial transaction watchdog AUSTRAC.
The government is concerned mobile phones are being used to in prisons “organise escape attempts, threaten the safety of victims and witnesses, organise trafficking of contraband, as well as facilitate behaviour contrary to our national security interests.”
“Telecommunications data is especially vital in establishing the ownership or location of mobile phones used to commit offences within correctional facilities,” the bill’s explanatory memorandum states.
Assistant minister to the minister for industry, energy and emission reduction Tim Wilson on Thursday said it is “necessary and appropriate to make these amendments ahead of broader holistic electronic surveillance reforms”
He cited the Operation Ironside bust by the Australian Federal Police last year, which resulted in the arrests of more than 350 people who, if convicted, may spend time in correctional facilities across Australia.
“The ability of corrective services authorities to access telecommunications data is now vital to combat transnational, serious and organised crime to ensure that safety and security of both the correctional environment and the wider community,” he said.
Under the bill, corrective services authorities in each state or territory will be able to access telecommunications data as long as the relevant minster has made a request to the federal home affairs minister.
Authorities will have to demonstrate their readiness to access data before the declaration is given, however, including through privacy arrangements and policies and procedures governing access to data.
Under the existing TIA Act, the home affairs minister can only make temporary declarations that expire after 40 sitting days, a provision that has been used to give Corrective Services NSW the powers immediately.
Wilson said that immediate access was only given “following extensive preparatory work, including development of policies and procedures, and a review of its privacy settings and consolation with the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the Privacy Commissioner”.
“The Commonwealth government has determined it is in the national interest Corrective Services NSW to be able to access telecommunications data ahead of the passage of this bill,” he told parliament.
The Corrective Services Administrators Council has long been calling for agencies to be afforded ‘enforcement agency’ status under the TIA Act, describing “unmonitored communications” in jails and prisons as a “serious threat to correctional facilities and the wider community”.
The government is also considering additional telecommunications access and surveillance powers for the Australian Taxation Office, Australian Border Force and Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission.