Australian police have just been granted the power to hack into your phone or laptop, collect, delete, or edit your information, take over your social media accounts, and monitor all of your communications – without the need for a warrant.
These terrifying new powers were voted in as part of the Identify and Disrupt Bill 2020, an amendment to the Surveillance Legislation. Both Labor and the Liberals voted in favour of the new changes.
The announcement comes amid a $90 million boost to the government’s already extensive surveillance and intelligence gathering capabilities.
Australia already has some of the weakest protections for individual privacy and security in the developed world. This new bill, granting the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) three new warrants, allows police free reign over your online life
Australians – at least, those who are aware of the changes – are up in arms about it but there’s not much they can do anymore. While the bill has been in discussion for three years, the final reading was rushed through parliament in just 24 hours.
The Department of Home Affairs has said that it needs these new powers “to combat cyber-enabled serious and organised crime” and to “disrupt those who organise and engage in other criminal activities.” Others are convinced however that the government is merely using the pandemic and the lack of scrutiny on government matters that it provides to further withdraw and restrict the rights of Australians.
Here’s everything you need to know about the new laws.
The Identify and Disrupt Bill
The new laws have come into effect allegedly to address the need to better infiltrate and disrupt criminal networks operating on the dark web and through encrypted services.
The Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2020 passed both houses of federal parliament on 25 August 2021. The new legislation extends the power of law enforcement agencies to “identify and disrupt” suspected online criminal activity through the provision of three new warrants.
The new warrants provide the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission with the power to:
- Modify or delete the data of suspected offenders (data disruption warrants);
- Collect intelligence on criminal networks (network activity warrants), and
- Take control of a suspected offenders’ online account (account takeover warrants).
What’s more, anyone who is required to assist with government hacking will be protected from civil liability, while anyone who refuses to comply with police demands can face up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
That means phone providers and social media companies will be forced to hand your data over to police if they decide that they want it.
There are some protections in place, as the police will need to apply to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) in order to justify why having access to your data could be useful to them.
However, members of the AAT, who will be making these decisions, are not judges and many are simply party members, leading some to question whether the policies will be followed correctly or with the proper oversight.
The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) has previously warned that the new powers could end up impacting the privacy of a large number of individuals – including those with no suspected involvement in criminal activity.
Why Does This Affect Me, I Haven’t Done Anything Wrong
You may have heard of the AN0M raids that took place across the globe in June. These were a series of arrests carried out by police networks working in collaboration across the globe.
Police created a fake encrypted messaging app called AN0M which they convinced organised crime members to use through undercover operatives. Those they were targeting used the app, revealing all of their information to police.
The operation resulted in the arrest of more than 800 people worldwide as well as seizures of 250 weapons and US$48 million in cash.
271 of these arrests took place in Australia and while this was a joint AFP and FBI operation, almost no one in the US was arrested.
That is because America has tougher individual privacy laws than Australia, where the majority of the operation was carried out.
Operations like this have indicated to police the need to adapt and enhance their abilities when it comes to the world of online organised crime.
However, Australia already has far fewer protections in this area, meaning the need for further scrutiny of individuals is largely unwarranted and crosses into a diminishment of human rights, experts say.
No other country has powers like this to spy on their own citizens – at least, no other country that we want to emulate.
While the above example is probably something that ought to happen, its a demonstration that the abilities of police to bring down criminal organisations operating online are already well beyond that of the UK, Canada, or the US.
Network activity warrants allow the AFP or ACIC to monitor online activity, without investigating or accusing a person of a crime – you don’t have to be a criminal for this to apply to you.
Account takeover warrants mean police can now take over your online accounts and change the information they find. This could then very well be used in evidence in a criminal proceeding.
What The Hell Do We Do Now
Well, the bill has already passed both houses, meaning it just needs royal ascent in order to become law. That normally takes just a few days, however the bill passed over a week ago and it has yet to receive it.
This gives a small window of opportunity to do or say something about it in order to get it repealed.
On Instagram, Paul Liddle shared his thoughts on the bill in a lengthy explanation of the new laws to his followers, describing its passing as a “f*cking abomination”.
“You’re not exempt just because you’re a good person minding your own business. Now, people can get into your accounts and re-write who you are”
“They can rewrite your very existence online. Basically, they can frame you”.
The video has been widely circulated online and Liddle calls on viewers to sign the petition calling for the bill to be repealed before it receives royal ascent.
You can find the petition, which already has 81,000 signatures, here.
If the laws do pass, it will take some time for the full effect of these powers to be known.
It seems highly likely that, given police now have the power to hack into peoples devices and plant evidence, that almost all digital evidence could become inadmissible in court.
Cybercrime is complex and the current state of online criminal activity on encrypted messaging services and the dark web leaves police very much in the dark when it comes to the operations of serious organised crime like people trafficking and child sexual exploitation.
Having the ability to deal with these problems is, of course, a good thing, however concerns have been raised that this is not what the new police powers will ultimately end up being used for, at least exclusively.
Melbourne Activist Legal Support say that the new powers could be used to spy on and criminalise anti-war activists, anti-mining and climate change activists, and pretty much anyone else who the government has a problem with.
The Greens, for their part, voted against the bill and their members have expressed their disappointment at its passing.
“The Richardson review [of the legislation] concluded that this bill enables the AFP and ACIC to be ‘judge, jury and executioner.’ That’s not how we deliver justice in this country.” said Senator Lidia Thorpe, the Greens spokesperson for Justice.
“The bill does not identify or explain why these powers are necessary and our allies in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand do not grant law enforcement these rights.
“The Greens put forward amendments to balance these powers with a robust human rights framework that would protect innocent people from the abuse of powers contained in this bill, but we were outvoted by the major parties.
“As our laws evolve to combat cyber-enabled crime, our human rights need to evolve as well to protect us from cyber-enabled abuses of power.”