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​Privacy advocates criticise far-reaching ASIO surveillance powers

New digital surveillance powers for Australia's top security agency have been described as 'too expansive' by leading civil liberties advocates.

Image by Yuri Samoilov, CC BY 2.0

Civil Liberties and privacy advocates have described proposals to modify ASIO digital surveillance powers as "too wide and expansive", saying they unfairly implicate innocent Australians.

The comments came during a public hearing on a proposed bill that would amend National Security Legislation to "modernise" the operations of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

These amendments include changes to penalties "in relation to the protection of intelligence-related information" and limitations on disclosing information relating to intelligence operations -- reforms which have come under fire for having the potential to limit "legitimate reporting of activities in the public interest" according to the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (PDF).

A further change that has the potential to affect everyday Australians is the move to define "computer" for surveillance purposes as either a single computer or "one or more computer networks; or any combination of the above".

When he first announced the bill, Attorney-General George Brandis said the measures were necessary to keep intelligence and law enforcement agencies up to date with modern technology in the face of a "real and undiminished" threat of terrorism, both overseas and in Australia.

However, privacy experts have said the reforms are too far-reaching and could affect those who are not under ASIO suspicion.

Speaking at today's hearing, Executive Officer of digital advocacy group Electronic Frontiers Australia Jon Lawrence said the organisation was "concerned about the lack of safeguards" to protect innocent Australians.

"[EFA wants to] ensure that civil liberties that Australians enjoy...are not dismantled in the name of a fairly generic and difficult to specify -- and in some ways hard to argue against -- terrorist threat," he said.

Lawrence took umbrage with the bill's revised definition of "computer," saying a new definition that includes computer networks and systems "is far too wide and expansive".

"Under the current definition it would be quite arguable that the definition could be applied to the entire internet," he said.

Third-party access

Lawrence also raised concerns about new powers that would allow ASIO to access a target computer via a third-party device. According to EFA's submission to the inquiry, "when coupled with the expanded definition of 'computer' mentioned above, [this] would allow ASIO to effectively access, intercept, disrupt, delete, alter or otherwise 'materially interfere with' multiple computers or computer networks with a single warrant".

While the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security recommended that third-party access should be "subject to appropriate safeguards and accountability mechanisms," EFA noted in its submission that "no such safeguards and accountability mechanisms are included in the bill".

Appearing with Lawrence at the hearing, Chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation Roger Clark added that while ASIO is held accountable to the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, this oversight did not constitute a legitimate safeguard; rather, that safeguards were elements of legislation that should be "designed" into the bill.

The Secretary of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, Dr Lesley Lynch, agreed that Inspector-General Vivienne Thom was limited in her ability to fully oversee ASIO activity, "considering the volume" of the organisation's operations.

"It's a simple volume and expertise issue," she said. "If you think of the number of are of necessity talking about a pretty limited kind of oversight."

Dr Lynch also argued that the escalated global threat of terrorism was "the new normal" and that introducing "exceptional or extraordinary laws" as a response to a perceived current threat level was not justified.

"[It is] increasingly obvious that these exceptional pieces of legislation may well be with us for the longer term," she said, adding that there was a lack of "visible justification for the extending of [ASIO] powers".

Elements of questioning in today's hearing were couched in terms of the so-called "real and undiminished" threat of terrorism, with one member of the committee questioning why EFA valued "the right to privacy over the right to life".

However, EFA's Jon Lawrence insisted that his organisation was "in no way opposed to the important role that ASIO and the Federal Police the security of Australians," but that "in any organisation there is potential for safeguards to be breached, for legislative restriction to be stretched to the limits and beyond".