Australia approves a surveillance bill that allows police to take over accounts, change data, and remove it.

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Australia passes surveillance bill that lets police take over accounts, alter, and delete data

Critics argue that the new police powers are overly wide.

This week, the Australian Senate enacted a new surveillance bill that gives police broad authority over online data. Law enforcement will presumably only use the law to tackle severe crimes hidden on the dark web, but some are concerned about how wide the new powers appear.

The Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2020 empowers the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Conduct (ACIC) to edit, add to, copy, or remove data in order to “frustrate the commision of serious crimes online.” They also have the authority to take over online accounts in order to obtain evidence of suspected criminal conduct.

The Australian Greens Party’s website warns that police can do this without formally accusing a person of a crime. “The Richardson review concluded that this bill enables the AFP and ACIC to be ‘judge, jury, and executioner.’ That’s not how we deliver justice in this country.” said Greens senator Lidia Thorpe.

The bill was first introduced late last year and passed both houses on August 25. Now it’s just waiting for Royal Assent—that is, final approval by the governor general. The law is designed to tackle severe cyber-related crimes like organized crime and child exploitation.

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Last August, former home affairs minister Peter Dutton asserted that police would only use this new law against things like drug trafficking, terrorism, and child exploitation on the dark web. Regarding people who commit those crimes, Dutton said the powers would apply “to those people and those people only.”

Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre was able to call for specific safeguards to prevent police from using the law against journalists and whistleblowers. However, the HRLC doesn’t think the precautions go far enough.

“While the safeguards for journalists and whistleblowers are welcome, they highlight the lack of wider entrenched safeguards for press freedom and free speech in Australia,” HRLC senior lawyer Kieran Pender wrote in a statement on the law center’s website. “By enacting wide-ranging surveillance and secrecy laws in the absence of federal human rights laws, successive governments have put the cart before the horse.” In the end, the HRLC estimates that parliament adopted only about half of the changes it recommended.

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The HRLC also criticized the speed of the law’s passage through parliament. “It is alarming that, instead of accepting the [parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security’s] recommendations and allowing time for scrutiny of subsequent amendments, the Morrison Government rushed these laws through Parliament in less than 24 hours,” Pender said.

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