Australia Follows U.S., U.K. in Proposing Radical Expansion of Government Surveillance Powers

An Australian high school student uses her laptop


The list of countries seeking new Internet surveillance powers continues to grow. On Monday, Australian authorities revealed that they want a new “interception regime” enabling them to wiretap the Web—similar to plans outlined in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

The proposal was published as part on a broad parliamentary inquiry set up to consider potential reforms of national security legislation. In a 60-page “discussion paper,” the Australian Attorney General’s Department outlined a sweeping, radical plan to increase the powers the country’s spy agencies will have to monitor communications.

Reflecting claims made in the United States and United Kingdom, the discussion paper says Australian authorities are facing “significant challenges” because people are increasingly communicating online. To address this, they want the inquiry to consider “urgent reform” that would extend interception powers to cover social networking and cloud computing providers, including VOIP chat services like Skype.

But it doesn’t stop there. The attorney general also wants the inquiry to consider making it an offense to decline or fail to assist in the decryption of communications. Additionally, telecom providers would be required to retain customer data for up to two years. This would establish a data retention regime stricter than exists in most Western democracies. The United States has no blanket data retention laws, and the majority of countries in Europe, under a mandatory directive, store data 6-12 months.

Other eyebrow-raising clauses contained in the discussion paper are vague and open to interpretation. Take, for instance, the proposal to allow authorities to spy on “an Australian person” if he or she is deemed to be involved in “intelligence or counter‐intelligence activities.” Existing law already allows Australian law enforcement agencies to wiretap people believed to be acting for or on behalf of a foreign power, or who are thought to be a threat to national security. So what kind of activity, exactly, is defined as “Intelligence or counter-intelligence”? Could an anti-government activist or an investigative journalist interviewing terror suspects be seen to be engaged in “intelligence activity”? The lack of a clear definition, worryingly, means this can’t be ruled out.

Another interesting proposed change would scrap a law that currently prohibits ASIO—Australia’s version of the FBI—from tampering with a targeted computer in a way that obstructs or interferes with the lawful access of it by other persons. This law, by my interpretation, effectively prohibits the authorities from planting spyware or keyloggers on shared computers that may be used by a suspect alongside other innocent bystanders. If scrapped, ASIO could do whatever it wanted to any targeted computer provided it obtained a warrant.

A public backlash followed the similar proposed expansion of surveillance powers in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Repeating this trend, opposition in Australia is already mounting. The country’s Green Party is leading the charge, saying the attorney general’s discussion paper is part of an “extreme proposal” that “imagines all Australians as potential criminal suspects.”

The parliamentary inquiry, being held by the joint committee on intelligence and security, is expected to publish its conclusions later this year, and any changes to the law will follow. According to the Australian Parliament’s website, “Interested persons and organisations” can make submissions to the inquiry, with a deadline of Aug. 6.