Aussie 'secret filter' legislation used for national security purposes

Summary:The controversial Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act, used to block websites from Australians, is currently being used by an unnamed Australian government agency for national security purposes.

After it was discovered that Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act had been used by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) to block certain websites , it emerged in senate estimates on Thursday that another government agency is using it for national security matters.

Although it is now known that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and ASIC have been using the legislation as a form of filter, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has said that there is no coordinated government filter in place.

Greens spokesperson Scott Ludlam, after being told by a spokesperson from the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy that a third agency under the Attorney-General's portfolio had used Section 313 to block content, raised the matter in Thursday's senate estimates hearings.

However, Attorney-General's Department Secretary Roger Wilkins said that "we don't comment on national security matters". When pressed by Ludlam on whether that meant that it was a national security agency that was the unknown party using Section 313, Wilkins confirmed that it was a national security matter, but that he could not comment further.

It is worth noting, however, that Section 313 can be used for a number of purposes other than blocking websites. AFP Deputy Commissioner Michael Phelan explained to the hearing that it uses the section for "other requirements that we do have that are not related at all to blocking websites", and that from May 2004, the AFP has used Section 313 to block malware and phishing attempts.

The AFP has since stopped using Section 313 for the blocking of malware, however, as it no longer represents the most efficient way to deal with problem sites.

"Over time, it's much more useful and far more valuable to actually get in contact with those that are hosting the material, and so on, and block it at the source, and get them to just tear down the sites, and so on, off-shore," Phelan said.

"That's a far more useful method than trying to block from here."

Section 313 is also not being used for material known to be illegal that passes by the eyes of the AFP every day.

"There's content out there that you know to be illegal. Other agencies are using [Section 313] to compel them to be taken down. Why would you not use them that way? I'm not inviting you to, I'm just wanting to know what the rationale is as to why you're not," Ludlam asked.

Phelan said that there was no particular reason and that if the AFP wanted to block this content, it could, but it couldn't apply the section to absolutely everybody due to the lengthy processes of finding search warrants and going through its usual oversight processes.

This article previously incorrectly attributed a quote to AFP Commissioner Tony Negus regarding commenting on national security matters. This quote was made by Attorney-General's Department Secretary Roger Wilkins and has been updated accordingly.

Topics: Security, Australia, Government, Government : AU, Privacy

About

A Sydney, Australia-based journalist, Michael Lee covers a gamut of news in the technology space including information security, state Government initiatives, and local startups.

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