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Australia gets spooks' charter, new leak penalties

Chief spook takes to the airwaves to call for more powers

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Australia's government has introduced its “spooks' charter” to parliament, wheeling ASIO chief David Irvine in front of a press conference to convince Australians of deadly threats to their liberty that justify the erection of a surveillance state.

The new legislation introduces a single warrant covering networks of computers (instead of requiring a single warrant for each intrusion); the right for agencies to use innocent third-party computers to access other computers; and the ability for intelligence officers to disrupt computer operations.

Data retention has, for now, been left off the table as politically too hot to touch. However, Irvine told the press conference that data retention is “absolutely critical” to ASIO's operations, in predicting and preventing terrorism, the agency needs the new national security legislation to “improve … the tools that we have to do that.”

Following up on the press conference, Irvine took the unusual step of appearing on breakfast television to press the case, boasting that “four mass casualty attacks” had been prevented in the last ten years (without noting that the agencies' success occurred without the data retention regime he is promoting).

Citing the fear that jihadists returning to Australia from Syria pose a threat to the country, Irvine said “it is a significant issue” and citing that threat as part of his case for data retention.

“The government has been listening very, very carefully to the requests by ASIO and by law enforcement, to ensure that we have, legally, the capability to do what needs to be done,” Irvine told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's AM program this morning (July 17).

“Mobile phone and internet data – call data, not the content of conversations or messages – is a key element in any police or security intelligence investigation. It helps identify people, it helps us eliminate people from the need to be investigated – it's just a basic building block of any investigation these days,” he said.

The Australian legislation comes as the United Nations warns countries that mass surveillance and data retention regimes can easily breach international law.

The laws also impose increased penalties for leaking information. A new offence would be created that offers five years in prison for disclosing special intelligence operations, rising to ten years should the disclosure “endanger the health or safety of any person or prejudice the effective conduct of a special intelligence operation”. ®

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