Increased powers for ASIO as Foreign Fighters Bill passes

ASIO is expected to receive greater powers to tap metadata and obtain computer access for national security purposes, with Australian parliament passing the government's Foreign Fighters Bill, the second tranche in its anti-terror legislation.
Written by Leon Spencer, Contributor

The so-called second tranche of the Australian government's counter-terrorism legislation has passed in the Senate, and is expected to give the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) greater powers to get metadata and computer access for national security purposes.

The Senate voted in the government's Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014 (PDF) on October 29. It received bipartisan support, with 43 votes for the Bill to 12 against.

The government, the opposition, and the Palmer United Party voted in favour of the Bill, which is set to give greater powers to Australia's law-enforcement agencies and broaden the metadata and computer access powers of ASIO.

The Greens, David Leyonhjelm, and Nick Xenophon voted against the Bill, which was introduced to parliament late last month, and initially also called for the expansion of biometric data collection at airports.

However, on October 22, the government announced that it had accepted all of the recommendations of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security into the Bill, one of which was to remove the ability to prescribe the collection of additional categories of biometric data.

"The committee recommends that the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014 be amended to remove the ability to prescribe the collection of additional categories of biometric information within the Migration Regulations," the committee said in its report (PDF).

"Should this information be required by relevant agencies to ensure Australia's border security, further legislative amendments should be proposed by the government and referred to this committee with appropriate time for inquiry and report," it said.

As it now stands, the Bill introduces sweeping changes to the country's security laws, including special provisions for certain overseas conflict zones to be declared effective no-go zones.

Australia's Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Dr Vivienne Thom raised concerns earlier this month about the new legislation's lack of clarity for the term "security", arguing that it could expand ASIO's power to get metadata for more than just national security purposes.

"The definition of 'security' in the ASIO Act is central to ASIO's functions, and underpins the tests for when various ASIO powers such as warrants and metadata authorisations can be used," said Thom.

The first tranche of the government's counter-terror legislation passed in parliament at the beginning of October. The laws give ASIO the power to monitor every device on the internet, and, with a single warrant, copy, delete, or modify data held on those devices.

Meanwhile, Labor has called on the government to release the exposure draft for the third tranche of its anti-terror legislation, which is expected to force telecommunications companies to retain customers' metadata for two years.

Attorney-General George Brandis had previously said that the legislation would be introduced this year, and there are now fewer than three sitting weeks left in the year. While the legislation does not appear on the list to be entered into parliament this sitting week, speculation is mounting that the government could enter the legislation as soon as this week.

The final piece of the government's anti-terror legislation would require telcos to retain an as-yet-undefined set of customer communications data, such as name, address, time, and location of calls, IP addresses, and other information for warrantless access by Australian government agencies investigating crimes or for the protection of public revenue.

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