What just happened? The Australian Senate passed a new surveillance bill that grants police sweeping authority over online data this past week. Presumably, law enforcement will only use the law to combat serious crimes hidden on the dark web, but critics are taking serious issue with how broad the new powers seem.
The Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2020 gives the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) powers to modify, add to, copy, or delete data to "frustrate the commission of serious offenses online." To gather evidence of suspected criminal activity, they also have the power to take over online accounts.
The Australian Greens Party's website warns that police can do this without formally accusing a person of a crime. "The Richardson review 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 Greens senator Lidia Thorpe.
The bill was first introduced late last year and passed both houses on August 25. Now it's just waiting for Royal Assent—that is, final approval by the governor general. The law is designed to tackle severe cyber-related crimes like organized crime and child exploitation.
Last August, former home affairs minister Peter Dutton asserted that police would only use this new law against things like drug trafficking, terrorism, and child exploitation on the dark web. Regarding people who commit those crimes, Dutton said the powers would apply "to those people and those people only."
Australia's Human Rights Law Centre was able to call for specific safeguards to prevent police from using the law against journalists and whistleblowers. However, the HRLC doesn't think the precautions go far enough.
"While the safeguards for journalists and whistleblowers are welcome, they highlight the lack of wider entrenched safeguards for press freedom and free speech in Australia," HRLC senior lawyer Kieran Pender wrote in a statement on the law center's website. "By enacting wide-ranging surveillance and secrecy laws in the absence of federal human rights laws, successive governments have put the cart before the horse." In the end, the HRLC estimates that parliament adopted only about half of the changes it recommended.
The HRLC also criticized the speed of the law's passage through parliament. "It is alarming that, instead of accepting the [parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security's] recommendations and allowing time for scrutiny of subsequent amendments, the Morrison Government rushed these laws through Parliament in less than 24 hours," Pender said.