Australia’s new ‘hacking’ powers considered too wide-ranging and coercive by OAIC


The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) has labelled the powers given to two law enforcement bodies within three new computer warrants as “wide-ranging and coercive in nature”.

The Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2020, if passed, would hand the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) the new warrants for dealing with online crime.

The first of the warrants is a data disruption one, which according to the Bill’s explanatory memorandum, is intended to be used to prevent “continuation of criminal activity by participants, and be the safest and most expedient option where those participants are in unknown locations or acting under anonymous or false identities”.

The second is a network activity warrant that would allow the AFP and ACIC to collect intelligence from devices that are used, or likely to be used, by those subject to the warrant.

The last warrant is an account takeover warrant that would allow the agencies to take control of an account for the purposes of locking a person out of the account.

See also: Intelligence review recommends new electronic surveillance Act for Australia

“The OAIC acknowledges the importance of law enforcement agencies being authorised to respond to cyber-enabled and serious crime. However, the Bill’s proposed powers are wide-ranging and coercive in nature,” it wrote [PDF].

It said, for example, data disruption and network activity warrants may authorise entering specified premises, removing computers or data, and intercepting communications. Network activity warrants, OAIC said, can authorise the use of surveillance devices, and both data disruption and network activity warrants may authorise the concealment of certain activities done under these warrants.

“These powers may adversely impact the privacy of a large number of individuals, including individuals not suspected of involvement in criminal activity, and must therefore be subject to a careful and critical assessment of their necessity, reasonableness, and proportionality,” its submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) continued.

“Further, given the privacy impact of these law enforcement powers on a broad range of individuals and networks, they should be accompanied by appropriate privacy safeguards.”

The OAIC believes the Bill requires further consideration to better ensure that any adverse effects on the privacy of individuals which result from these coercive powers are minimised, and that additional privacy protections are included in the primary legislation.

It also wants the Bill amended to require issuing authorities to consider the impact of the warrants on the privacy of any individual when determining applications for data disruption warrants and network activity warrants, in addition to account takeover warrants.

Likewise, the OAIC has asked for a limit to the number of warrant extensions that can be sought in respect of the same or substantially the same circumstances and that the issuing authority be required to consider the privacy impact on any individual arising from the extension of the warrant to ensure that the potential law enforcement benefits are necessary and proportionate to this impact.

Elsewhere, the commissioner has asked the Bill be amended to only allow for judicial oversight and authorisation of warrants issued under it.

The chief officer of the AFP or ACIC may apply for a network activity warrant if that officer suspects on reasonable grounds that a group of individuals constitutes a “criminal network of individuals”. The OAIC believes the Bill’s definition of a criminal network of individuals has the potential to include a significant number of individuals, including third parties not the subject or subjects of the warrant who are only incidentally connected to the subject or subjects of the warrant.

“The seriousness of this impact upon privacy requires further mitigation with commensurate safeguards,” it said. “The OAIC recommends amending the Bill to narrow the definition of ‘criminal network of individuals’.”

Among its recommendations is the mandate for the information within denied warrants to be destroyed, as well as a requirement on agencies to consider the utility of the collected information and take active steps to destroy it when it is no longer necessary for the purposes of criminal investigations.

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