Law enforcement agencies to receive strengthened online powers

By Shannon Jenkins

Thursday August 26, 2021

Home affairs minister Karen Andrews said the powers would enable the agencies to fight serious crime online.
Home affairs minister Karen Andrews said the powers would enable the agencies to fight serious crime online. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) will be granted the power to take control of a person’s online account under legislation passed in parliament on Wednesday.

The Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2020 has introduced three new warrants for the law enforcement agencies. Home affairs minister Karen Andrews said the powers would enable the agencies to fight serious crime online.

“The arrest of more than 290 people as part of Operation Ironside earlier this year confirmed the persistent and ever evolving threat of transnational, serious and organised crime – and the reliance of these networks on the dark web and anonymising technology to conceal their offending,” she said.

“Under our changes the AFP will have more tools to pursue organised crime gangs to keep drugs off our street and out of our community, and those who commit the most heinous crimes against children.”

A network activity warrant will enable the agencies to collect intelligence on criminal networks operating online, including on the dark web and when using anonymising technologies.

A data disruption warrant, meanwhile, will authorise the AFP and the ACIC to modify data belonging to suspected criminals, to ‘frustrate the commission of serious offences such as the distribution of child exploitation material’, Andrews said.

Finally, an account takeover power will allow the agencies to take control of a person’s online account for the purposes of gathering evidence about criminal activity, in conjunction with other investigatory powers. Andrews noted that law enforcement agencies currently require consent to take over an individual’s account.

Read more: Proposed law enforcement powers too coercive, information commissioner warns

Greens senator Lidia Thorpe said she was ‘disappointed’ that Labor and the Liberals voted in favour of the bill.

“New warrants allow police to monitor online activity without accusing us of a crime, take over our accounts + edit our data (which could be used as evidence) + it’s easier to put us in jail. Making the AFP judge, jury and executioner is not how we deliver justice in this country,” she wrote on Twitter.

The Law Council of Australia has also voiced concern that the bill had not adopted key recommendations made by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS).

“The Law Council believes the significant breadth and intrusive scope of these warrants demands consideration by judicial officers, as the PJCIS recommended,” Law Council president Dr Jacoba Brasch said.

“These warrants have the potential to cause significant loss, damage or disruption to lawful computer users who are not suspected of any wrongdoing.

“While the Law Council understands that there is an intention to consider these matters in the longer-term development of new electronic surveillance legislation, the PJCIS’s recommendations were specific to the three new warrant-based powers in this legislation, which are novel, extraordinary and intrusive.”

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has also previously warned that the powers could ‘adversely impact the privacy of a large number of individuals, including individuals not suspected of involvement in criminal activity’.

The new powers will be overseen by the commonwealth ombud and the inspector-general of intelligence and security. They will also be subject to review by the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor and the PJCIS.

Read more: ACIC thinks there are no legitimate uses of encryption. They’re wrong, and here’s why it matters


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