This week, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott used recent terrorist threats as the backdrop of a dire warning to Australians that “for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift. There may be more restrictions on some, so that there can be more protection for others.”
This pronouncement came as two of a series of three bills effecting that erosion of freedoms made their way through Australia's Federal Parliament. These were the second reading of a National Security Amendment Bill which grants new surveillance powers to Australia's spy agency, ASIO, and the first reading of a Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill that outlaws speech seen as “advocating terrorism”. A third bill on mandatory data retention is expected to be be introduced by the end of the year.
Whilst all three bills in this suite raise separate concerns, the most immediate concern—because the bill in question could be passed this week—is the National Security Amendment Bill. Introduced into Parliament on 16 July, it endured robust criticism during public hearings last month that led into an advisory report released last week. Nevertheless the bill was introduced into the Senate this Tuesday with the provisions of most concern still intact.
In simple terms, the bill allows law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant to access data from a computer—so far, so good. But it redefines “a computer” to mean not only “one or more computers” but also “one or more computer networks”. Since the Internet itself is nothing but a large network of computer networks, it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that the bill may stealthily allow the spy agency to surveil the entire Internet with a single warrant.
Apart from allowing the surveillance of entire computer networks, the bill also allows “the addition, deletion or alteration of data” stored on a computer, provided only that this would not “materially interfere with, interrupt or obstruct a communication in transit or the lawful use by other persons of a computer unless … necessary to do one or more of the things specified in the warrant”. Given the broad definition of “computer”, this provision is broad enough to authorize website blocking or manipulation, and even the insertion of malware into networks targeted by the warrant.
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