Spy agency could soon be hunting Australian cyber criminals with new powers

By Shannon Jenkins

Thursday February 20, 2020

Every day, public servants across the world write millions of formal memos, notes and briefings. (Photobank/Adobe)

The federal government’s top spy agency could be granted powers to help tackle online criminals based in Australia, including paedophiles and terrorists.

The government has, for years, been considering allowing the Australian Signals Directorate to spy on offenders in Australia, according to ABC News, and their proposal has now reached an “advanced stage”.

The ASD is currently only permitted to spy on foreign cybercriminals. The spy agency can tackle criminals using servers overseas, but must cease its work if the server is based in Australia.

Under the proposal, the ASD may be allowed to assist the Australian Federal Police with local cyber matters. The proposal could also allow the AFP and other agencies to develop cyber expertise.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has not fully supported the proposal, but has signalled the need for change.

“What I think is that there should be a public debate about whether we think it’s acceptable for our society to tolerate the presence of these criminal networks right next door to us and yet we have no ability to do anything about it,” he told ABC News.

It comes as AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw told the National Press Club he would call out tech companies that block authorities from identifying criminals on the dark web, and “probably damage their reputation”.

“That’s one of the techniques law enforcement has used before, to say ‘if you’re a company that’s going to be obstructionist with law enforcement and not help us out when it comes to protecting our children, then, again, all bets are off’,” he said.

“They can do more in this area and they can let us in … When you have to collect the evidence and secure it for Australian prosecution, it can become quite challenging with these companies and we’d like to see them work faster for us in that area because it slows down the judicial process.”

Last year the AFP received 17,000 referrals for child exploitation cases — a massive increase from the 300 referrals a decade ago. One referral does not equate to a single image of a child, it could be thousands.

A new paper from the Australian Institute of Criminology found 256 Australians have paid more than $1.3 million across 2700 payments for live-streamed sexual violence against children from the Philippines. It revealed these individuals were likely to be aged in their 50s or 60s, and more than half of them had no criminal record. Just 10% had a sexual offence recorded in their criminal history.

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