‘No one’s safe under these laws’: Surveillance Bill could target activists and downloaders

Sweeping new surveillance powers pushed by Peter Dutton could be used to target grassroots activists.

Sweeping new surveillance powers pushed by Peter Dutton could be used to target grassroots activists.

The Morrison government’s proposed Surveillance Bill could be used to target everyone from Black Lives Matter campaigners to underage kids illegally downloading movies, critics have warned.

Victorians Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe told The New Daily that the sweeping powers proposed by the Bill have “far-reaching implications for grassroots activists, and people standing up for their rights”.

“No one’s safe under these new laws,” Senator Thorpe said.

“It will affect grassroots communities across the country, it will affect children. It will affect anybody who downloads a movie illegally over the internet – they could go to jail for five years.”

The proposed legislation gives the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and, through those bodies, the Australian Signals Directorate three new powers to investigate and disrupt criminal activity online.

Senator Lidia Thorpe says the surveillance laws would violate human rights. Photo: AAP

Under the laws, authorities could hack, secretly takeover, and add, copy, and delete material on computers and digital accounts anywhere in the world without the account-holder’s knowledge or consent.

Black Lives Matter campaigners, climate and forest activists, and others who use social media to protest and organise could “be subjected to these invasive new laws that allow government agencies to infiltrate people’s social media platforms, change the wording, and have complete control over people’s personal social media platforms,” Senator Thorpe said.

She slammed the Bill as “just another way that [Home Affairs Minister Peter] Dutton is trying to stay relevant by bringing in these these laws that are intrusive into people’s lives”.

“It’s an invasion of privacy, it’s a breach of human rights, and it’s more reason that we need a bill of rights in this country,” Senator Thorpe said.

“This government has a very bad track record on human rights violations … and then introduce these sweeping laws that are about spying on their own community.”

Mr Dutton introduced the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identity and Disrupt) Bill  to parliament last Thursday and argued that the new legislation is needed to crack down on child sexual abuse and terrorism offences perpetrated under the cover of the dark web.

On Tuesday, Mr Dutton referred the Bill to the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security for review, with an outcome not expected until next year.

The New Daily put questions to Mr Dutton about the community consultation undertaken prior to the Bill’s introduction, the safeguards in place, and whether Australia needs a charter of human rights.

The New Daily asked Mr Dutton’s office if the Minister believes Australia needs a charter of human rights, but did not get an answer.

A statement from a spokesperson for the Attorney-General’s Department was provided in response, stating that the Bill includes “strict oversight and review mechanisms”.

“Network activity warrants and data disruption warrants will only be available upon application to an eligible Judge or nominated AAT member, or magistrate in the case of account-takeover warrants,” the statement said.

“The Bill provides robust oversight by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security for the network activity warrants, and the Commonwealth Ombudsman for the data disruption warrant and the account takeover warrant.”

The Labor Party is yet to reveal its position on the proposed powers.

“As we consider this legislation, Labor will work constructively with the Government to keep Australians safe,” a spokesperson for Labor’s shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally said.

Deakin University criminology lecturer and Australian Privacy Foundation vice-president Monique Mann said the government has previously used the rhetoric of national security and terrorism to rush through legislation that has subsequently been used to target journalists and whistleblowers.

Two years ago, the government, with the support of Labor, rushed through the ‘anti-encryption’ Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018, which forces telco and tech companies to hand over data to law enforcement authorities upon request.

The laws were justified as necessary to prevent terrorism, but were subsequently used to raid the ABC and the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst following reporting on alleged Australian war crimes in Afghanistan.

The Assistance and Access Act was rushed through parliament, and subsequently used to raid the ABC and journalist Annika Smethurst’s home. Photo: AAP/Twitter

Dr Mann said non-disclosure requirements and secrecy provisions related to the laws make it difficult for the public to know how they’re being used.

However, the latest annual report on the operation of the Act released the Department of Home Affairs shows that seven technical assistance requests were made during the reporting period.

“They were being used for cyber crime and telecommunication, but not any terrorism offences, which was the main rationale supporting the introduction of the laws,” Dr Mann said.

The public can have little confidence that the Surveillance Bill, despite being justified as necessary to fight terrorism and child exploitation, won’t be used for a wide range of different purposes, she said.

“If these laws are being introduced specifically to respond to what they’re saying in relation to child sex abuse material and online offences of that nature, then perhaps that should be specified in the primary legislation,” Dr Mann said.

The Law Council of Australia, which in September criticised the government for using the COVID-19 pandemic to curtail civil liberties, has also raised its concerns over the lack of checks and balances in the Surveillance Bill.

“Of particular concern is the issuing of disruption warrants by members of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), which the Law Council believes should be issued solely by superior court judges, who are appointed in their personal capacities,” Law Council President Pauline Wright said.

“The power to issue disruption warrants should not be conferred on ordinary AAT members, as is proposed in the Bill. In this regard, Australia is already an outlier with our Five Eyes counterparts, all of whom have adopted judicial authorisation models for the issuance of surveillance warrants to their security agencies.

“The Bill will serve only to widen this gap.”

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