Government obtained 4,000 telco interception warrants for FY15

The total number of telecommunications interception warrants decreased marginally from a year earlier, while a total of 83 agencies were permitted to access telco data.

The Australian government has published its annual report into the activities undertaken under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act, revealing that 3,926 interception warrants were issued during FY15, with New South Wales Police making more than a third of all requests.

"The government noted that telecommunications data is increasingly important to Australia's law enforcement and national security agencies," the report says.

"Access to telecommunications data is central to virtually every counter-terrorism, organised crime, counter espionage, and cybersecurity investigation, as well as almost every serious criminal investigation, such as murder, rape, and kidnapping by allowing prescribed agencies to determine how and with whom a person has been communicating."

The report [PDF], published on Friday, showed that between July 1, 2014, and June 30, 2015, interception warrants issued by authorities decreased by 2 percent over the 4,007 warrants in 2013-14.

Just nine interception warrants were refused, however; a drop from last year's 18.

"Interception warrants are highly privacy intrusive and are only sought when operationally necessary and where statutory preconditions are met," the report noted.

They can only be obtained to investigate offences carrying a penalty of seven or more years, and must be approved by an eligible judge from the Federal Court, Family Court, or Federal Circuit Court.

During the year, 1,901 telco interception warrants were carried out for serious drug offences or trafficking; 477 for loss of life or personal injury; 420 for murder; 286 for ACC special investigations; 149 for bribery or corruption; 203 for organised crime; 197 for money laundering; 63 for serious damage to property or arson; 165 for serious fraud or revenue loss; 121 for terrorism; 53 for kidnapping; 49 for conspiring, aiding, or abetting a serious offence; 28 for assisting a person to escape or dispose of proceeds; 10 for child pornography offences; four for the administration of justice; and just one for cybercrime.

Of the agencies permitted to carry out interception warrants, NSW Police was the most prolific, obtaining 1,532 interception warrants, followed by the Australian Federal Police (AFP), at 1,024; Western Australia Police, at 318; the Australian Crime Commission (ACC), at 289; Queensland Police, at 271; the NSW Crime Commission (CC), at 205; Victoria Police, at 174; South Australia Police, at 88; Northern Territory Police, at 54; the Police Integrity Commission NSW (PIC), at 48; the Qld Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC), at 44; Tasmania Police, at 24; the WA CCC, at 23; the Victorian Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC), at 18; the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI), at seven; the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), at five; and the SA ICAC, at three.

Three warrants authorised entry on private premises during the year -- two from the WA CCC and one from the AFP -- an increase of 200 percent from last year's single warrant from the WA CCC.

NSW Police accounted for almost half of all prosecutions making use of intercepted information as evidence, with 2,271 out of the total 4,686. NSW Police obtained only 542 convictions, however, indicating that 1,729 of the intercepted records were ineffective in court.

Overall, only 1,912 of the total 4,686 prosecutions using intercepted information were successful -- a 40 percent success rate.

The average duration that an interception warrant remained in force for was 63 days, despite 81 days being the average period specified in warrants.

The average cost per warrant across all agencies was AU$31,194, with cost per warrant topping out at AU$93,217 for the IBAC, which spent a total of AU$1.7 million on executing telco interception warrants during the 12-month period. NSW Police, which executed the most warrants, had the lowest average cost of just AU$4,017 per warrant, leading to total expenditure of AU$6.2 million over the year. The highest total spent by an agency was the AFP's AU$16.7 million.

Law-enforcement agencies also made 365,728 authorisations for the disclosure of historical telecommunications data over the year. Of these authorisations, 354,841 were to enforce a criminal law -- an increase of 9.3 percent from 2014-15's 334,658 data authorisations, of which 324,260 authorisations were made to enforce a criminal law.

During the period, 102 B-Party warrants were issued, 15 percent fewer than in previous year; 1,000 named person warrants were issued, stable with the 99 made in 2013-14; and law-enforcement agencies made 377 arrests, conducted 335 prosecutions, and secured 198 convictions thanks to evidence obtained under warrants for stored communications.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman conducted two inspections each of the interception records of the AFP, the ACC, and ACLEI during the year.

In regards to existing telecommunications data, which may be accessed to enforce a criminal law, a law imposing a pecuniary penalty, or for the protection of the public revenue, many more agencies are permitted access, vastly widening the net.

Agencies and departments given access to existing information or documents to enforce a criminal law over the 12-month period included ASIC; the Australian Financial Security Authority; the Australian Fisheries Management Authority; the Civil Aviation Safety Authority; the Clean Energy Regulator; Customs; the Department of Agriculture; the Department of Defence; the Department of Health; the Department of Immigration and Border Protection; the Department of Social Services; the Department of the Environment; SA Consumer and Business Services; Corrective Services NSW; the WA Department of Commerce; the Vic Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources; the WA Department of Environmental Regulation; the Vic Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning; Corrections Victoria; the NSW Environment Protection Authority; the Vic Legal Services Board; the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage; Roads and Maritime Services NSW; RSPCA Queensland; RSPCA Tasmania; RSPCA Victoria; The Hills Shire Council; the Vic Transport Accident Commission; Workcover NSW; and Worksafe Victoria.

This group again expanded for the enforcement of a law for the protection of public revenue, with the following all receiving access to existing information or documents: Australia Post; the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency; the Clean Energy Regulator; the Department of Industry and Science; the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; the Department of Human Services; the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet; the Department of Social Services; Fair Work Building and Construction; the ACT Revenue Office; Bankstown City Council; City of Darebin; Consumer Affairs Victoria; SA Consumer and Business Services; the Qld Department of Environment and Heritage Protection; the Qld Department of Agriculture and Fisheries; the WA Department of Commerce; the Victorian Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources; the WA Department of Fisheries; the Sheriffs Office of Victoria; the WA Department of Mines and Petroleum; the WA Department of Parks And Wildlife; the NSW Department of Primary Industries; the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission; Ipswich City Council; Juvenile Justice NSW; Knox City Council; the Victorian Legal Services Board; the NSW Office of Fair Trading; the Victorian Office of Fair Trading; the NSW Office of State Revenue; the Qld Office of State Revenue; SA Primary Industries & Regions; Revenue SA; RSPCA Queensland; the State Revenue Office Victoria; the Victorian Taxi Services Commission; and Wyndham City Council.

Notably, Racing NSW, Racing Queensland, Harness Racing New South Wales, Harness Racing Victoria, the Qld Office of Liquor and Gaming Regulation, the Victorian Office of the Racing Integrity Commissioner, and Racing and Wagering Western Australia all received access to existing information during the year for purposes of enforcing the protection of public revenue.

In November, Victorian Attorney-General and Minister for Racing Martin Pakula requested that the Victorian Department of Racing be granted access to data stored under data retention in order to prevent corruption.

"I can confirm that his previous access to historical telecommunications data has been critical in the effective conduct of his functions under the Racing Act 1958 (Vic), and I would respectfully request that you give urgent consideration to reinstating access as was authorised prior to 13 October 2015," the letter, written by Pakula to Australian Attorney-General George Brandis, said.

Under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act 2015, passed by the Australian government in March and coming into effect in mid October, telecommunications customers' call records, location information, IP addresses, billing information, and other data stored for two years, accessible without a warrant by law-enforcement agencies.

The TIA report does not include info from data retention, noting that it had not yet come into power but would "significantly reduce the number of agencies that may access telecommunications data under the TIA Act".

Under s110A9(1) of the Act, the agencies that have access to data retention [PDF] are the AFP, state police forces; the ACLEI; the ACC; Customs and Border Protection; ASIC; the ACCC; the CC; ICAC; the Police Integrity Commission; the IBAC; CCC Queensland; and the CCC -- although more agencies have requested to join this list.

While the original data-retention Bill had required only the attorney-general of the day to approve more agencies to the list of those that can access the data retained, the Labor Party insisted on an amendment that requires Parliament to approve the addition of any new agencies.

Only a select number of agencies can now access the data; however, in May, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) was quietly added to the list of agencies permitted to access the data after Parliament passed the Customs and Other Legislation Amendment (Australian Border Force) Bill 2015.

"[Attorney-General George] Brandis made a great show of narrowing the range of agencies that would be able to access this collected material. And here we are in parliament, on the very next sitting week after that mandatory data-retention Bill passed, and the first example of scope creep lies on the table today," Greens communications spokesperson Senator Scott Ludlam criticised.

The addition of the DIBP side-stepped the Parliamentary Joint Committee of Intelligence and Security approval process, Ludlam said, and came despite the department in question having a poor security track record.