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New ASIO powers condemned as mass internet espionage

The Senate has passed a new 'National Security' bill that has been heavily criticised for granting ASIO sweeping powers to "spy on any device connected to the internet".

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Image by Yuri Samoilov, CC BY 2.0

The Senate has passed a bill granting greatly expanded surveillance powers to Australia's top spy agency, including the ability to track whole networks of devices in order to apprehend individual criminal suspects.

The National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No.1) 2014 [PDF] is the first of three tranches of legislation to make its way through parliament, set to address what Brandis described as a "real and undiminished" threat of terrorism on local shores. The second tranche of legislation -- known as the Foreign Fighters bill -- has also now been tabled, while a third tranche addressing metadata retention is due next year.

The major changes introduced in the bill now passed by the Senate include changes to "computer access warrants" to enable ASIO "to use a third party's computer to access data in a target computer; and amending the definition of 'computer' to include multiple computers, systems and networks".

However during debate on the bill, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam argued that the legislation could be used to justify ASIO spying on any internet-connected device in the world.

"This bill mandates an extraordinary expansion to how the law henceforth will understand to be the definition of a computer, by expanding it to include the definition of a network or networks," said Ludlam. "This deliberate expansive definition of 'computer' means that, effectively, with one single warrant ASIO could spy on any device connected to the internet anywhere in the world.

Senator Ludlam proposed an amendment to the bill [PDF] seeking to curtail these broad powers, and called Senator Brandis to task on the maximum number of devices that could be included in a single computer access warrant.

In a tense senate exchange, which Senator Ludlam described as "opaque and utterly unhelpful", Senator Brandis advised that "what ASIO would be empowered to do would be that which is authorised by the warrant, which is in turn governed by the terms of the act".

Despite requests, the attorney-general would not clarify whether ASIO would be able to monitor "traffic that passes over a given device", whether the agency could install software on targeted devices and whether warranted access could be 'capped' to a certain number of devices under the legislation.

"I think it is extraordinary that the government would draft an amendment...that sets no upper limit on the number of devices that a single ASIO warrant could catch," said Senator Ludlam.

"A single warrant could be sought and received to capture a single mobile phone handset or a local area network or an entire university campus or an entire township. I think you can see where this is going. There is no upper limit on the number of devices."

In addition to the expansion of computer access warrant powers, the Bill also included harsher penalties for "unauthorised disclosure of information" relating to "special intelligence operations" -- a provision that has been heavily criticised by the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance [PDF] for limiting press freedom and criminalising whistleblowers.

The bill was passed through the Senate late last night with a 32 vote majority, with 44 votes for and 12 votes against.