The Government’s effort to expand the legislative power of the Australia's spy agency, including the breadth of computers it can access under a single warrant, has been passed by the federal parliament despite heated debate in the lower house today.
The National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014 passed both houses of Parliament without a number of amendments aimed at limiting the amount of devices ASIO can access under one warrant, after Labor and the Palmer United Party voted with the Coalition to give the bill majority support.
In a heated debate, Greens and independent MPs again unsuccessfully attempted to implement amendments which would cap the number of devices ASIO can access with a single warrant at 20, following legal advice which suggested the current wording of the legislation meant ASIO could effectively use the provision to access the entire internet.
Both Justice Minister Michael Keenan and Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus echoed earlier comments by Attorney-General George Brandis, who argued that a limit would impose an unworkable burden on ASIO investigations.
“The definition of computer as relevant to ASIO warrants has been updated to reflect technical developments. The amendments are intended to do nothing more than honour the original, decades-old intentions for the warrant scheme in modern conditions,” Labor’s Drefyus said.
He argued the capability of Australia’s top spy agency should not be degraded by the legislative definition of ‘computer’ - which under the bill was expanded to include 'networks' of computers.
“Under the legislation, for a warrant to be issued there must be reasonable grounds to believe that access to the computer will substantially assist the collection of intelligence in respect to an important security matter. The legislation makes it clear warrants are to be expressed with precision and specificity," he said.
But the Government failed to clarify what it would define as a ‘network’.
In response to repeated questions by dissenting Greens MP Adam Bandt, Justice Minister Michael Keenan answered only that ASIO was subject to Attorney-General guidelines which require the agency to intrude into individual privacy as little as possible and collect only intelligence relevant to an investigation.
The handful of Greens and independent MPs who voted against the bill angrily criticised the Government for attempting to rush the legislation through in order to capitalise on a period of community fear in relation to terrorism.
“If this bill goes through, all you need is one warrant to access every computer on [a] network. And if you read the legislation as it is, the internet is a network or network or a combination of networks, so a single warrant can access the entire internet,” Bandt argued.
Bandt argued that the new law could also catch innocent citizens who are on the same network as a suspect.
“I don’t believe anyone sitting at home on their iPad or jumping on a computer at work who has done nothing wrong should be the subject of a warrant simply because someone on that network is a subject of a warrant,” he said.
“We accept that there may be a case for saying the definition of computer networks need to be updated, but we want to limit the number of devices that can be accessed from a single warrant to 20. That should be more than ample to cover the need for any single warrant served for a particular person.
“If Labor and the Government refuse to support a sensible limit on the number of the devices that can be accessed from one warrant ... it is [then] absolutely crystal clear that an unlimited number of devices can be accessed from one warrant.”
Bandt and the Greens were supported by independents Andrew Wilkie and Cathy McGowan, and in principle by Labor MP Melissa Parks who abstained from a vote.
Wilkie said the Government’s bill was “disgraceful” and constituted some of the farthest-reaching reforms in Australia’s history.
“We have good ministers most of the time. But what about when we have a bad minister, or when someone wants to overreach and go further? These laws will allow that minister to go much further than the reassuring words of the Government and the Opposition today.”
Labor's Parks said the provision was the equivalent of a physical search warrant for a house that “allows you to search a number of other arbitrary houses”.
The bill is the first of three tranches of legislation the Government plans to introduce on national security.
The third, to be introduced before the end of the year, will include controversial mandatory data retention imposed on Australia's internet service providers and telecommunications companies.