Calls to further expand intelligence powers

Australia’s premier foreign cyber-intelligence agency would be enlisted to help track down ‘online criminals’ under a proposal being developed by the government.

Authorities appear to be moving forward with discussions on the sweeping overhaul, as Peter Dutton reiterates it’s time for a “public debate” over domestic surveillance powers.


Dutton calls for greater measures. Photo: AMH


New proposals would explicitly expand the charter of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD, formally DSD), so that it could direct cyber capabilities at people or systems located within Australia.

According to reports, additional foreign interference laws are currently on the table, following warnings from security agencies that more powers may be needed to counter the ‘threat’ posed by foreign agents and darker corners of the online web.

Citing online pedophiles and ‘terrorist’ activity, the Australian government is once again using these talking points as a means to introduce further measures of monitoring.

The ASD, whose motto is to “reveal their secrets, protect our own” as it “operates in the slim area between the difficult and the impossible”, is currently restricted under legislation to only hacking, disrupting and destroying foreign criminal cyber activity.

However, this is predicted to radically change if new laws are enacted, allowing groups such as the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to enlist the services of the ASD to investigate Australia’s borders.

Currently, if cyber agents working for ASD come across cybercriminal activity within Australia, its work must immediately stop, no matter how serious the offence.

It is understood that the Government wants agencies to be able to develop cyber expertise or to enlist the skills of ASD by relaxing the restrictions governing the agency’s remit.

Mr Dutton said on Tuesday morning if security agencies believed they needed further clarity around their powers, “then we will look at that”.

Government and intelligence sources insist any extension of ASD’s remit would be directed at suspected serious criminal activity.

If history is anything to learn from, the idea of a ‘controlled system’ of surveillance should be taken with a grain of salt, given the extensive track record of Australian privacy right being violated.


The current discussions began after Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Director-General Mike Burgess sounded the alarm on foreign states interfering in Australia’s political affairs. He says visiting scientists and academics were ingratiating themselves with Australian universities in a bid to conduct intelligence collection.

Along with foreign interference, Mr Burgess raised concerns about the growing threat of right-wing extremism and revealed ASIO was investigating twice as many terrorism leads as last year.

From beginnings as spies in the Cold War, Australia’s intelligence community has developed over the last century to become a behemoth with technical capabilities that rival international counterparts.

On a per capita basis, Australian organisations have grown to become 20 times more likely to intercept telephone calls than the United States government. This includes accessing phone and internet data an astonishing 1,200 times per week.

Secret State: The
Monitoring of Australia

A review into Australia’s intelligence laws was ordered in 2018 and handed to the government in December last year, following years of criticisms from civil liberty advocates and privacy groups.

This all started after first being reported by Annika Smethurst, who revealed amendments were being considered to ASD legislation in 2018. The story was strongly denied by the government at the time, and subsequently saw Smethurst’s home and office raided by the AFP.

Dutton confirmed new powers which would change the ASD’s domestic remit were still on the table in June last year, while refusing to confirm details of the proposal.

AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw told the National Press Club on Wednesday the Australian intelligence community was “pretty happy with what the AFP have, but there are some challenges there in some additional legislation that is required”.

Furthermore, Rory Medcalf, the head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said Australia was entering a new level of “proactive transparency” from its security agencies and it should be welcomed.

Let’s not forget that the information stored in these systems is made available to be shared amongst any one of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence community – the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.


Australia has ushered in a host of ‘pre‐crime’ surveillance measures over the last decade that permit the mass monitoring of society, while allowing for the restraint of individuals on the basis of ‘anticipated future harm’, rather than past or present wrongdoing.

A system in which the states bear primary responsibility for law and order, combined with the absence of a national bill or charter of rights, has led to an unprecedented network of spying mechanisms used by secretive intelligence networks in Australia

The Australian Law Council President, Pauline Wright, said while protecting Australians remained the priority, there needed to be safeguards to ensure civil liberties were also protected.

“This proposal would radically alter the current security landscape for how Australian Signals Directorate operates and there will need to be very strong safeguards in any such proposal,” she said.

“The Law Council would want to see the details of those safeguards to ensure they provide proper protections for the rights and freedoms that Australians rightly expect. 

These rights and freedoms have already been eroded in recent years and should not be further undermined.”

Bond University’s Terry Goldsworthy wrote that we should be “wary” of expanding the ASD’s powers, a similar argument to earlier warnings by the Law Council of Australia.

Furthermore, the NSW Council for Civil Liberties labelled metadata laws “indiscriminate and excessive” and warned about the “cumulative chilling and intimidatory impact of the government’s expanded surveillance powers and secrecy offences”.

While few would debate the importance of fighting paedophiles and other elements on the web, it’s a line the government has frequently rolled out to justify other creeping privacy encroachments.

In December, Dutton supported the government’s anti-encryption legislation by calling out Facebook to stop protecting paedophiles and their communications with encryption.

Paedophiles and terrorists were also commonly cited years ago as a justification for controversial data-retention legislation, which required telecommunications providers to store detailed ‘metadata’ about every call their customers make.

Yet again, the same old broken tune being used to expand a surveillance apparatus of Orwellian proportions. How far are authorities willing to go in order to ‘protect’ Australians?


Dutton opens door to more powers to counter foreign interference — Sydney Morning Herald

Why we should be wary of expanding powers of the Australian Signals Directorate — The Conversation

Comprehensive review of the legal framework governing the National Intelligence Community — Australian Attorney-General

Who leaked the idea of ASD spying on Australians, and why? — ZDNet

Secret State: The Monitoring of Australia — TOTT News


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