Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton (pictured) is using the COVID-19 crisis to introduce broad new powers for Australia’s chief spy agency, such as the ability to track people without a warrant and question suspects as young as 14.
The proposed Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Amendment Bill 2020, released on Wednesday in parliament, makes significant changes to ASIO’s surveillance powers, broadening the definition of a tracking device and enabling warrantless (internally authorised) surveillance.
Barrister Greg Barns, with the Australian Lawyers Alliance, said the “sinister” proposed legislation also impinges “significantly on the rights of lawyers and their clients” and “reduces independent scrutiny of ASIO’s surveillance activities”.
Australian Law Council president Pauline Wright is “very concerned” the government is “rushing the Bill” after having years to develop the legislation, cautioning that the proposed laws would need to be “carefully scrutinised”.
“The proposal to reduce the age of minors who may be subject to questioning from 16 to 14 years and the conferral of powers on police to apprehend and detain persons for the purpose of bringing them in for compulsory questioning also requires detailed scrutiny by the Law Council, amongst the many other amendments,” said Wright.
Digital Rights Watch Australia campaigns manager David Paris told Voice of Action that doing away with oversight mechanisms was the opposite of what the government should be doing to build trust with the public in this era of mass surveillance.
“This is an alarming proposal to again radically expand the powers of agencies that already have way too much of it with way too little accountability,” said Paris.
“Conduct like this — trying to sneak in new powers under the cover of COVID-19 — is why so many people are sceptical of this government’s assurances about the protection of their rights.”
It comes after experts warned the government’s COVIDsafe contact tracing app may be part of the “architecture of oppression” that is being built by the national security state.
Under the new ASIO legislation the definition of tracking device has been expanded to include not just “equipment” but “equipment and any other thing (whether tangible or intangible)”.
Asked whether this could be a way of getting access to COVIDsafe app data, Paris told Voice of Action “this is hard to rule out”.
“We saw from reports a few weeks ago that unspecified agencies tried to get access to the Covid app, and law enforcement requested ‘added capabilities’,” said Paris.
“The base function of the COVID app, capturing the duration people of interest are in proximity, is certainly a compelling capability for a surveillance organisation to have.”
Justin Warren, board member for Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA), said more power with less oversight is what authoritarian regimes want, not democratic governments.
“At some point Australians will need to discuss whether they want to live in a liberal democracy, or a fascist dystopia,” Warren told Voice of Action.
“Successive governments have shown us quite clearly which direction they want things to go. The question now is who will stop them?”
Kristina Keneally said Labor would “always take the advice of our national security agencies” but expects any new measures to be considered by the Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security.
Greens digital rights spokesman senator Nick McKim said the national terrorism threat in Australia hadn’t increased for more than five years “yet we have been confronted with wave after wave of legislation”.
“To use the pandemic as cover for the increased scope of the surveillance state is dangerous and cynical,” said McKim.
“There have been more than 200 pieces of ‘counter terror’ legislation passed in Australia since 2001 and very few have been relaxed or withdrawn. Australia desperately needs a Charter of Rights to protect our basic freedoms.”
Australia is unique among the Five Eyes countries in that we don’t have a bill of rights that provides fundamental rights to people. Australian law enforcement and security agencies already have significant powers; in December 2018 a law was passed forcing technology companies to provide them with access to encrypted communications.
In February Dutton revealed he was seeking to expand the powers of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to spy on Australians.
Police have been caught conducting thousands of illegal telecommunications metadata searches under the controversial 2015 metadata retention laws.
Australian Federal Police officers trialled Clearview AI facial recognition technology from late 2019 until early this year without authorisation.