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.
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:
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.
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?
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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