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Intelligence watchdog warns against intel agency mission creep

An insider's view of data retention

A genuine intelligence insider has told a government inquiry that expanding telecommunications intercept powers could be both risky and privacy-invasive.

Dr Vivienne Thom is the inspector-general of intelligence and security, and she has written to the Senate's Legal and Constitutional Affairs Reference Committee about the government's “Comprehensive revision of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979” (here).

The revisions of the act have been under review for some time, and agencies such as the Australian Federal Police and ASIO have appeared before Senate committees calling for wider interception access and data retention, calls that have been echoed by both Labor and Liberal governments.

Dr Thom, however, is more cautious. In this submission to the committee, she sounds warnings that it's already difficult to protect individuals' privacy against excessive data gathering by agencies such as ASIO – and that some of the proposals in front of the committee may sweep up more data by accident.

One of the proposals before the committee is to implement “attribute-based” communications interception – “the proposed scheme would enable the warrant to be specific about particular characteristics of communications to be provided and thereby potentially oblige the carriers to sort those from other telecommunications traffic that could be covered by the existing warrants.”

However, Dr Thom states, “If the proposed warrant is not limited to a specified person or premises and allows ASIO to add and remove ‘characteristics’ during the life of the warrant it would substantially change the balance between what is currently decided by the Attorney-General and what is within the authority of the Director-General of Security.”

She also expresses concern that “any significant change to the current regime could, at least initially, result in more errors by carriers”, and adds that any communications retained under such a regime can't be held for later fishing expeditions: “I would expect to see any regime include appropriate measures to ensure that the content of communications which were not the specific target of the warrant would not be retained longer than necessary for ‘sorting’,” she writes.

Dr Thom also hints at concerns about mission-creep by agencies like ASIO, stating: “my office would have an interest in whether the use of the more intrusive powers increased with time.”

The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security's remit covers ASIO, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), the Australian Signals Directorate, the Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation, the Defence Intelligence Organisation, and the Office of National Assessments. ®

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