Surveillance and secrecy ramps up

The bill rushed through the parliament with Labor support this week is just one of over 70 laws over the last decade or so that increase police powers of surveillance of citizens and secrecy. 

Here’s what the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2020  does:

Creates three new types of warrants:

  • Data disruption warrants enable the AFP and the ACIC to disrupt data by modifying, adding, copying or deleting in order to frustrate the commission of serious offences online
  • Network activity warrants allow agencies to collect intelligence on serious criminal activity being conducted by criminal networks; and
  • Account takeover warrants let the AFP and the ACIC take control of a person’s online account and can be combined with other warrants to gather evidence to further a criminal investigation

Few would disagree that to fight cybercrime networks and the dark web, law enforcers need appropriate powers but according to the Human Rights Law Centre, the bill’s powers:

“are unprecedented and extraordinarily intrusive, they should have been narrowed to what is strictly necessary and subject to robust safeguards..’

Liberal MP Tim Wilson described the bill as ‘worrying’ and ‘raises serious questions about the bounds of the state’ but he voted for it anyway.

Senior lecturer in criminology at Deakin University, Dr Monique Mann, said the laws are just the latest in what she called a “hyper-legislative” approach to electronic surveillance.

“[These laws] represent, in my view, significant expansions of the existing powers of law enforcement agencies away from a traditional focus on investigation and the collection of admissible evidence of specific offenses to disruption, to attack, to take-over, to take-down,” 

The National Cabinet that wasn’t, goes secret anyway

Less than a month after Justice Richard White found that the ‘National Cabinet’ was not a subcommittee of the Federal Cabinet and therefore not entitled to keep secret its deliberations, the government found a fix. 

The COAG Legislation Amendment Bill also sailed through the Parliament last week to stop Senator Rex Patrick and others using FOI to access ‘National Cabinet’ documents.

Sounds pretty dull until you look at what it does. According to the explanatory memorandum, this bill makes clear “that where commonwealth legislation makes provisions to protect from disclosure the deliberations and decisions of the cabinet and its committees, these provisions apply to the deliberations and decisions of the committee of cabinet known as the national cabinet”.

It’s clean-up legislation in response to Patrick’s case brought before the AAT to gain access to minutes of the national cabinet. He argued the prime minister had no grounds to extend cabinet confidentiality to his national cabinet meetings with state premiers and chief ministers.

The government has form…

It’s not so long ago that the AFP raided the premises of media organisations, journalists, and whistleblowers in an exercise of government power described at the time as secretive, ruthless and vindictive.  Under cover of national security, the Commonwealth Crimes Act gives government wide powers to classify almost anything as secret.

Section 70 of the Commonwealth Crimes Act makes it an offence punishable by up to two years’ jail for a public servant or former public servant to make an unauthorised disclosure of any fact or document they come across in their role as a public servant.

The metadata law of 2015, makes it relatively easy for the police and security forces to carry out electronic surveillance of communications between journalists and their sources.

Governments over time have put in place a repressive legal regime largely for their own protection – think the pursuit of whistleblower reporting on the bugging of the Timor Leste cabinet office and reports of harm done to the mental health of asylum seeker children on Manus Island and Nauru – hardly threats to national security.

Meanwhile we are still waiting for an integrity commission that might investigate government claims that it was OK to distribute hundreds of millions in grants to shore up support in their favoured electorates.

Don’t hold your breath…

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