Australian Civil Liberties Union
THE OLYMPICS. ASIO. PRIVACY. FREEDOM OF SPEECH.
The 2000 Sydney Olympic Games are being used as a pretext to extend the powers of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization. A bill introduced by the Howard Government in March 1999 made it clear that the extensions of powers would be permanent and would not be ended or modified when the games were over. ASIO already has powers, which have sometimes been abused, to open peoples mail, intercept telecommunications, place listening devices in peoples homes and offices, and intercept phone conversations.
ASIO will be given powers to obtain emergency warrants, plant tracking devices on people and hack into computers via the Internet under the proposed new laws. In an unprecedented move, ASIO will be authorised to intall tracking devices - electronic beacons or even chemical substances - on people or in vehicles, with or without consent. This opens the possibility of ASIO maintaining around-the-clock surveillance of targetted individuals. The changes threaten freedom of speech and open discussion of political matters especially on the Internet.
The bill which implements some of the main recommendations of the report prepared by Gerard Walsh, a former deputy director of ASIO, has been criticised by the online privacy group Electronic Frontiers Australia. A spokesman for the Attorney General has claimed that the changes to ASIO's powers were part of a wider review of national security powers and that any similarities with the Walsh report (page 78) were "coincidental".
The bill which has received little publicity represents the greatest extension of ASIO's powers since the ASIO Act was first passed in 1979. For the first time ASIO will have access to taxation files, will have the authority to collect foreign intelligence, and will be able to intercept articles delivered by private couriers as well as articles handled by Australia Post.
Mike Head says that in the name of protecting the "national security", the Bill gives ASIO far-reaching powers to retrieve and alter information from any computer or computing system, including an Internet service provider, regardless of any state or federal law. ASIO officers will be empowered to seize data obtained by "remote access" - commonly referred to as hacking - or by direct physical access to a computer system under an entry and search warrant. They will be authorised to crack and modify password control systems and encryption programs, opening the way for the sabotage of web sites, e-mail facilities and internal communications systems.
The explanatory memorandum circulated by Attorney-General Daryl Williams states: "The computer provisions permit the Minister to authorise ASIO to add, delete or alter data for the purpose of gaining access to data in a target computer and to do things that are reasonably necessary to conceal that anything has been done under the warrant. This would include modifying access control and encryption systems". ETA claimed that loose definitions allowing alteration of computer data could lead to the fabrication of electronic evidence. The Bill permits warrants for ASIO to hack into a suspects computers, allows ASIO to alter access control and encryption systems to monitor communications, extends the period for bugging to 28 days, and allows ASIO directors to issue emergency warrants.
No one's banking and tax records will anymore be free from political monitoring. ASIO will be able to request and use individual and business taxation and financial transactions data from the Tax Office and the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre. William's memorandum reveals that the Sydney Olympics and the subsequent Paralyrnpics are likely to see a great many people placed under federal and state surveillance. The Bill will enable ASIO to provide security assessments directly to state authorities, such as the political police of Special Branch (now known as the Protective Security Group in New South Wales), rather than via the federal police. According to Williams, the change will "simplify administrative processes in the expectation that State authorities responsible for security arrangements for the Sydney 2000 Games and Paralympics are likely to request numbers of security assessments". Being able to gather foreign intelligence within Australia will widen ASIO's operations considerably. Until now, it has only been authorised to do so under special warrants. Foreign intelligence has been the province of the Australian Secret Intelligence Services (ASIS), the Office. of National Assessments (ONA), the military's Joint Intelligence Office (JIO) and the electronic eavesdropping agency, the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD). The penalties for obstructing or interfering with the operations of ASIO will also be strengthened, by giving courts the power to impose heavy fines as well as jail terms of up to five years.
Mr Head claims that "by seeking unfetted power to crack open and modify e-mail encryption codes, the Australian government is going further than its British and American counterparts. They have sought to use export controls to prevent the distribution of encryption software, unless national intelligence agencies were able to read the codes. Some companies, including the makers of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), have refused to comply on the grounds that the First Amendment of the US Constitution outlaws restrictions on free speech".
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Australian Civil Liberties Union