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New Australian bill enables warrantless account takeover by police

It’s one thing for police to perform digital surveillance at will, but it’s another when they can force citizens to aid their investigations or seize online accounts. Even by Australian standards, their latest surveillance bill is a gross violation of Australian citizens’ rights to privacy and transparent government.

New Australian bill enables warrantless account takeover by police

Australia’s new surveillance bill

It’s called The Surveillance Legislation Amendment Bill 2020 (Identify and Disrupt), and critics are saying it’s a new low in Australia’s slide towards a police state. Here are the key new powers introduced by the bill:

  • Data disruption warrants: the power to modify or delete the data of suspected offenders;
  • Network activity warrants: Perform surveillance on criminal networks;
  • Account takeover warrants: Take over a suspected offender’s online account.

There are a few things worth considering here. First of all, all of these onerous powers can be leveled against suspects – people who have not yet been convicted of a crime. Secondly, Australia critics caution that the term “warrant” may be misleading. Warrants for these actions can be issued by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which does not amount to the judicial warrant one would expect for interventions of this severity.

For other critics, the worst part is how the bill forces civilians to comply with the government’s surveillance efforts. Agreeing to comply with the government’s surveillance requests protects individuals from personal liability, but refusing to comply can be punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

What’s wrong with the bill?

Proponents of the bill say that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) need these powers to fight online crime and to “level the playing field” against criminals abusing online security technologies.

Indeed, it’s easy to imagine how these powers might help in an investigation. However, it’s not clear whether the government actually needs these powers. As Australian Senator Lidia Thorpe notes:

“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.”

So what other potential dangers are there for a bill introducing surveillance overreach that may not even be necessary?

  • Broad scope: Proponents of the bill say it’s a tool to combat child abuse, drug trafficking, and terrorism, but this is often said of most surveillance tools. Critics say the bill itself contains nothing to limit it exclusively to those fields. Indeed, it covers all Commonwealth crimes, including State crimes with “Commonwealth aspects”.
  • Open to abuse: Critics had hoped that the warrants for this bill would be reviewed by the courts, but this is not the case. They can be reviewed and even granted retroactively by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which is part of the executive branch of the Australian government. Government officials are only human, so granting such powerful tools with limited oversight creates dangerous potential for abuse.
  • Excessive: It’s unclear whether these measures are needed, but another question is whether or not these changes are right. Should the government be allowed this level of access to its citizens’ lives, and should it be so easy to gain this access? Should it be allowed to force citizens to assist its investigation under threat of serious jail time?

A general principle for government powers is that once they are granted, they are rarely taken away. Even if some Australians are comfortable with the current government wielding these powers, the same tools will probably be available for the next political party to take the reins.

All that remains for the Surveillance Legislation Amendment Bill 2020 to become law is Royal Assent – a signature from the Governor-General. However, it’s still important that Australians express their opposition to this bill and to the privacy violations it may engender.

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