Quiet fight over bill to bust digital rights
Federal authorities are moving to change laws in a way that would allow illegally obtained evidence to be used in court.
A public hearing was held this week to discuss National Security Amendment Bill (No.1) 2014.
The bill, which Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Attorney General George Brandis says is meant to enhance ASIO tools to fight terrorism, does not actually mention terrorism.
It does, however, include a range of changes that have set off alarms for advocates of an open internet and personal digital security.
Proposed changes include:
- A provision that would force courts to accept illegally obtained information
- Immunity for ASIO, its affiliates and others involved with special intelligence operations when they break the law. It includes cases when security staff only “believed” their actions were part of an operation
- The removal of protections including the need for ASIO to obtain a warrant for personal tracking devices.
- Greatly enhanced abilities to tamper with digital information and hack computer networks
- Increased jail terms for leaking information from 2 to 10 years, while removing the Attorney-General's discretion over prosecutions.
While there were reportedly no members of the public at the public meeting, Civil Liberties Australia and Electronic Frontiers Australia did plead their case.
Largely, they asked for more time to get around the scale and complexity of the proposed changes before they are debated in Parliament.
The Law Council of Australia said it was concerned that the change would mean suspects in special intelligence operations could not even tell their lawyer what had happened to them.
Electronic Frontiers Australia said the tools and provisions for government-backed computer hacking were so broad they allowed almost anything.
Several Senators in attendance revealed that they had not actually read the text they were defending.
Committee members said the changes, including a provision that would lead spy agencies to enter illegally-obtained evidence in secret trials, would be monitored and controlled by IGIS - the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security.
But IGIS is tasked with overseeing six separate intelligence agencies including ASIO, with a staff of just 12 people and a budget of $4.27 million. ASIO, meanwhile, has 1778 staff members and a budget of $642.25 million.
Digital freedom advocates say it is a scary possibility that so many valid legal protections may be thrown away for unnecessary tools to fight an undefined enemy.
The Committee should now be preparing a report on the legislation, despite several members not having read it. Attorney General George Brandis is looking for the final report by September 8.
A third reading will follow the report, before the changes can be voted into law.