Australian authorities have begun using their controversial “extraordinary” new hacking warrants, allowing them to “disrupt” the data of suspected offenders and access their online accounts.
The Identify and Disrupt Bill was passed with bipartisan support in August last year. It allows the Australian Federal Police and Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission to access three new warrants to access the computers and networks of those suspected of conducting criminal activity and even take over their accounts covertly.
The warrants allow authorities to “disrupt” the data of suspected offenders, access their devices and networks to identify them, and take over their accounts.
After initial administrative delays in accessing these warrants, authorities had begun using these new powers by the end of last year, the Department of Home Affairs told the Senate.
“These processes are now finalised and there are issuing authorities available to issue data disruption, network activity and account takeover warrants,” the Department of Home Affairs said in answer to a Senate question on notice.
“As of December 2021, agencies have obtained warrants under the new powers introduced by the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Act.”
The Department did not say which of the three new warrants have been accessed so far by authorities.
There are widespread concerns around the new hacking powers, including that the threshold for accessing them is too low, their potential impact on innocent third parties, and the potential for them to be misused.
The government moved 60 amendments to meet most of the recommendations of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, including enhanced oversight powers, reviews in several years time, the sunsetting of the powers after five years and strengthened protections for third parties and journalists.
But the government rejected the committee’s call for a higher threshold for the issuing of the warrants, and for them to only be approved by a judge, rather than a member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
The Opposition ultimately backed the legislation and voted with the government to pass it in August last year.
It was rejected by the Greens, who labelled it as another step on the “road to a surveillance state”.
Prominent digital rights organisations and advocates also slammed the new powers, labelling their passing as an “explosion of the surveillance state”.
A petition calling for the legislation to be repealed garnered more than 100,000 signatures in just weeks.
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