The nation’s top police officer has warned law enforcement “cannot see” some forms of serious crime, as he pushed for sweeping surveillance powers human rights groups call a “dangerous overreach”.
Representatives of the Australian Federal Police and Home Affairs Department fronted a senate inquiry on Wednesday into a bill to drastically expand law enforcement’s online surveillance powers.
A federal government proposal aimed at tackling serious online crime would allow police to apply for three new warrants, giving them the power take over a suspect’s accounts and delete or modify data.
AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw said police powers had failed to adapt to the advent of the dark web and anonymising technology, saying law enforcement had “one hand tied behind our back” online.
“Criminals should not be able to conduct serious crimes online and get away with it just because our laws have not kept pace with changes in technology,” he said.
Mr Kershaw warned young people were being drawn to extremist ideology online, often using encrypted platforms.
“We are observing their behaviour escalate unpredictably and sometimes quickly. That makes us very concerned about the behaviour we cannot see,” he said.
But the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) lashed the proposal as a “dangerous overreach”, arguing it could be used to target journalists and whistleblowers.
“Surveillance powers intrude on people’s privacy and have a chilling effect on the exercise of political rights,” HRLC senior lawyer Kieran Pender said.
Any crime punishable by a sentence of three years or more could be targeted under the bill, which Mr Pender said could include a range of less serious offences.
“(Home Affairs Minister Peter) Dutton has said the powers granted by the bill are intended only to be used in cases of the most severe wrongdoing,” he said.
“But the bill is drafted so broadly it overreaches far beyond what could be considered legitimate.”
The committee heard offences punishable by a three-year sentence included capturing a dolphin, not complying with health orders, and social security fraud.
The Law Council of Australia’s Jacoba Brasch said it was “difficult to reconcile” those offences with the bill’s stated aim of targeting the most serious crimes, including terrorism and child exploitation.
But Mr Kershaw defended the bill, arguing organised crime gangs could be dismantled by “attacking their outer perimeter”, including less serious crimes.
AFP deputy commissioner Ian McCartney said crime gangs were often “not focused on one particular form” of crime.
“The syndicates that we investigate are involved in a range of criminality, and we need the flexibility in the legislation to apply to those types of groups,” he said.
Labor home affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally raised concerns the bill could be weaponised in the future.
“What safeguards can you point me to, other than the good intentions of government, that would assure this committee that these warrants would not be used for other types of crime … considered by the community to be lower-level offences?” she asked.
Mr McCartney said the AFP would necessarily target the most serious of crimes given budgetary constraints.
WHAT THE LAWS DO
The bill would give law enforcement the power to seek three new warrants. They include:
• Account takeover warrants, including the power take control of a suspects’ online accounts. This would require a magistrate’s approval
• Data disruption warrants, empowering law enforcement to delete, modify or disrupt data
• Network activity warrants, enabling intelligence on serious online criminal networks to be collected.
An Administrative Appeals Tribunal judge or member would be required to sign off on the latter two.