New counter-terrorism measures pushed by a government "run out of control" will see Australian agencies legally able to intercept unread emails for the first time, in routine investigations, according to civil liberties group Electronic Frontiers of Australia (EFA).
In a review of Australia's ability to meet the challenges of "the new terrorist environment," a raft of proposals, including amendments to the Telecommunications (Interception) Amendment Act 1979, were endorsed at a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, according to the Department for Attorney General Darryl Williams.
However amendments to the Act, which was originally only used when ASIO and the police were investigating "top end criminality," broadens the number of people able to order a telecommunications interception from the usual "uniformed police and trench-coat spooks" to agencies such as the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) which themselves have prosecution powers, EFA chairman Kim Heitman said.
"It's a government run completely out of control here," Heitman said. "The government is obviously in a panic about terrorist acts and in the meantime they've forgotten why there are checks and boundaries on government surveillance."
According to Heitman, the original Telecommunications Interception Act once placed a very high value on personal privacy--something that differentiated Australian legislation from that of European states.
ASIO and other law enforcement agencies were unable to intercept unread emails as the communication was said to belong to the sender, not the recipient. However, the Act has evolved to the stage now that police are using telecommunications networks as part of routine investigations, such as petty fraud, Heitman added.
EFA's position has consistently been that what's needed is more "coppers on the beat" than new powers but instead "we've got a creep of police powers under the shadow of September 11 but not exactly in direct response to it," Heitman said. "We don't think you can counteract terrorism by becoming more of a dictatorship," he added.
Although mere proposals as present, Heitman believes the amendments are a "fait-accompli" and once increased powers are granted they'll never be called back. "The threat of terrorism might pass but the threat to civil liberties will be set in concrete," he said
The review, headed by Attorney-General's department secretary Robert Cornall, found that "the profound shift in the international security environment has meant that Australia's profile as a terrorist target has risen and our interests abroad face a higher level of terrorist threat. While there remains no known specific threat of terrorism in Australia, Cabinet has endorsed a raft of measures to enhance our ability to meet the challenges of the new terrorist environment," a statement issued from the Attorney General's deparment said.
Cabinet will give further consideration to additional issues arising out of the review in the new year.
The Office of the Attorney General did not return calls by press time.
Staff writer Rachel Lebihan reported from Sydney.