Last week, Australia passed a bill that would give police a lot of power to spy on people through their online accounts and devices. Read on to find out how Orwellian this surveillance bill is—and be cautious about what precedent this could set internationally moving forward.
What’s in the bill?
On August 25, 2021, the Australian government passed the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2021, which is now awaiting final approval by the Governor General.
The bill outlines three new warrants that can be used by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) to fight criminal activity.
- Data disruption warrant: Grants police the power to access, modify, or delete data on any device suspected in aiding criminal activity.
- Network activity warrant: Grants police the power to gather intelligence from suspicious devices or networks.
- Account takeover warrant: Grants the police power to take control of a suspected offender’s online accounts (email, social media, etc.) to gather information in an investigation.
Anybody called upon to assist in an investigation will be protected from civil liability, but failure to comply will result in up to 10 years in prison.
Concerns for privacy and free speech
Unsurprisingly, this bill has free speech and privacy advocates more than worried—especially considering that 1) there is no judicial oversight for issuing warrants and 2) only low levels of approval are required.
Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe has criticized the passing of this bill, stating that it “enables the AFP and ACIC to be judge, jury and executioner. That’s not how we deliver justice in this country.”
The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC)—an independent government agency that acts a national data protection authority for Australia—also echoed similar concerns, specifically stating that: “These powers may adversely impact the privacy of a large number of individuals, including individuals not suspected of involvement in criminal activity, and must therefore be subject to a careful and critical assessment of their necessity, reasonableness and proportionality. Further, given the privacy impact of these law enforcement powers on a broad range of individuals and networks, they should be accompanied by appropriate privacy safeguards.”
This isn’t the first time that Australia has passed a new technology bill that wasn’t popular locally or internationally. The Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 affected encryption technology, leaving Australia’s population vulnerable by requiring that tech companies provide backdoors and exploits into messaging apps, phones, and web services.