New legislation giving authorities unprecedented powers to hack, monitor and intercept your online communications are a bridge too far, according to a leading civil liberties lawyer specialising in digital rights.

Angus Murray, a member of the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights and Chair of Electronic Frontiers Australia’s Policy Team, said the new Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2020, which was passed by Parliament on August 25, gives the government power that is well beyond what the laws were designed for.

The new legislation enables law enforcement agencies to:

  • Take over people’s online accounts
  • Covertly monitor networks to collect intelligence
  • Disrupt data by adding, modifying or deleting content

Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said the new powers were designed to “frustrate offending, collect intelligence on criminal networks, and take control of alleged offenders’ online accounts.

“Under our changes, the AFP will have more tools to pursue organised crime gangs to keep drugs off our street and out of our community, and those who commit the most heinous crimes against children.”

But Angus Murray said the new laws represented “the end of a horrendously slippery slope that’s been buttered pretty heavily.

“In the last six years, we’ve gone from collecting ‘data about data’ to ‘we can covertly monitor you, alter your accounts, take over your accounts, communicate with people as if we’re you, and alter content’,” he said.

“This legislation, theoretically, would allow government to put child exploitation material on your computer and prosecute you for that.

“These are powers that would be abhorrent in any other federal democratic society, because of the intrusive power conferred to law enforcement.”

Other experts voiced a more measured response to the new laws. 

Dr Roberto Musotto, Research Fellow at the Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre, said the laws enabled authorities to act more effectively in the online world.

“Today, there is an additional tool at the disposal of law enforcement agencies,” Dr Musotto said.

“But will it be enough to prepare, pursue, protect Australians from future malicious cyber activity?

“Probably not, but it will create an additional challenge to those criminal actors that will not be able to adapt to these new powers,” he said.

Lecturer in Computing and Security at Edith Cowan University’s School of Science, Dr James Jin Kang, said people should treat any online communications as public information.

“This act comes from the public safety [need] to identify terror or criminal acts,” he said.

“Like other laws, it comes with negative aspects. In my opinion, there is no solution to meet both purposes (privacy and public safety),” he said.

But Angus Murray, who is also vice-president of the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties, believes the solution is a federal framework for human rights in Australia, such as a bill of rights.

“The universal declaration of human rights was agreed in December 1948,” he said.

“We are now in September 2021, and we have still not properly ratified what was agreed was required to preserve the liberties and freedoms of human beings.

“That is a very concerning sentiment in modern Australia.”

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