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Sweeping digital surveillance powers passed by parliament

Legislation allowing ASIO to monitor entire networks of devices under a single warrant has now passed into law, despite crossbench MPs calling it "flawed" and "rushed".

Image by Alexandre Normand, CC BY 2.0

Australia's national security agency has been granted sweeping new powers to monitor entire networks of digital devices under new legislation that cleared the House of Representatives today.

The changes were passed by a significant majority, with both Liberal and Labor MPs supporting the bill, and three crossbench MPs opposing. This followed a sweep through the upper house where the majority of Senators voted in favour of the bill.

Among those lower-house MPs opposing the reforms to national security legislation were Greens MP Adam Bandt and Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, both of whom introduced amendments seeking to curtail the powers of ASIO and increase oversight of security operations.

Under the new National Security Legislation [PDF], the definition of 'computer' has been changed, granting ASIO the power to monitor entire connected networks, rather than individual devices. This expansion of power was heavily criticised by a number of Senators, including Greens Senator Scott Ludlam who said a single warrant could be used to monitor "a single mobile phone handset or a local area network or an entire university campus or an entire township".

Senator Ludlam's lower-house colleague, Greens member for Melbourne Adam Bandt sought to introduce a cap on the number of devices that could be monitored through a single warrant, limiting the number to 20.

This amendment was roundly opposed by the house, with only Bandt, Wilkie and independent MP Cathy McGowan.

Similarly, Minister Wilkie said the bill was "being rushed" and was "flawed", raising concerns over the potential for the new legislation to impact upon the legitimate activities of journalists reporting on ASIO operations.

Under the bill, journalists and whistleblowers face penalties of up to 10 years imprisonment for "unauthorised disclosure of information" relating to "special intelligence operations" that is deemed to "prejudice the effective conduct" of such operations.

However, an amendment moved by Minister Wilkie was opposed, with Assistant Minister for Defence Stuart Robert saying the bill was " designed to stop the one in a million journalists who perhaps isn't quite across the ramifications [of their reporting]," adding that if journalists "endanger the lives of our people [security personnel] knowingly... there is a consequence".

The National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014 passed the House of Representatives after being introduced yesterday, and is the first of three tranches of legislation designed to expand and update ASIO powers in the face of what Attorney-General George Brandis called the "real and undiminished" threat of terrorism in Australia.