The federal government has revealed planned changes to Australia’s controversial encryption-busting legislation that will give anti-corruption bodies similar powers to other law enforcement agencies.
Amendments to the Assistance and Access Act introduced to parliament on Wednesday afternoon propose extending the industry assistance powers to eight additional agencies, including state corruption watchdogs.
The Australian Federal Police, Australian Crime Commission and state and territory police forces are the only law enforcement agencies afforded the powers as the Act currently stands.
This includes the ability to ask technology companies to create a vulnerability on "one or more target technologies that are connected with a particular person"
However the government wants to extend the definition of an ‘interception’ agency under the Act so that it includes the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity and state crime and corruption commissions in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, SA and WA.
It also would bring the definition of ‘interception agency’ into line with the definition under the Telecommunications (Intercept and Access) Act 1979.
The government said this will give the anti-corruption bodies the “tools – the form of industry assistance – to investigate serious crime, and law enforcement misconduct and corruption across the public sector”.
This includes both the ability to request assistance (technical assistance request) and compel assistance (technical assistance notice) from communications providers, as well as technical capability notices.
“As with law enforcement agencies currently covered by the Access and Assistance Act, investigative agencies and anti-corruption agencies face the same investigative challenges in the modern communications environment caused by the use of encryption to protect personal, commercial and government information,” the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2019 states.
“Extending the technical assistance framework to investigate and anti-corruption agencies ensures that they have the same powers to seek assistance in the investigation of law enforcement misconduct and corruption in the public sector.”
The proposed extension comes as the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence & Security (PJCIS) reconsidered its interim position that state and territory commissions against corruption should be excluded from the powers late on Tuesday.
The bill also proposes that the requirement that the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM) conduct a review into the “operation, effectiveness and implications” of the Assistance and Access Act be amended so it occurs “before the end of the 18-month period”.
“This Bill expedites the review so that it is conducted [INSLM] by the before the end of the 18 month period beginning on the day the Assistance and Access Act received Royal Assent,” the bill states, adding that this will “provide timely assurance” the Act is working as intended.
It is currently required to conduct the review “after the 18-month period beginning on the day the Assistance and Access Act receives Royal Assent”.
Labor also plans to introduce amendments to the Assistance and Access Act, though these are principally aimed at properly defining what constitutes a systemic weakness or vulnerability under the law.