Newest anti-terrorism laws introduced into Parliament

The newest in a string of anti-terroism laws targeted at telecommunications has been introduced today, continuing to have freedom implications for journalists.

The Government has introduced the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014, as the next step in giving law enforcement and security agencies the tools they need to keep Australia safe, but the downside may be that they are used, in conjunction with other terror laws, to monitor or hamper journalists in their investigative work.

The Bill will require Australian telecommunications companies to keep for two years a limited set of metadata which is information about the circumstances of a communication as opposed to the content of a communication.

The types of information being kept are: the identity of the subscriber to a communications service; the source of the communication; the destination of the communication; the date, time and duration of the communication; the type of the communication; and the location of the equipment used in the communication.

It doesn’t provide any additional powers to law enforcement or intelligence agencies, nor does it give them any capacity to access metadata beyond what they already have. The Government will, however, significantly reduce the range of agencies which can access metadata to those with a clear need, such as law enforcement and security agencies.

For journalists, this exposes the risk of sources being revealed and the data tracking technology being used to prevent controversial stories being published.

Opposition politicians Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese are both on the record as criticising other recently introduced associated laws for hampering journalist freedom and threatening journalists with jail in some circumstances.

In further developments on this issue today, Attorney General George Brandis has directed the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions that no journalists may be prosecuted under the new laws without first consulting the attorney-general of the day and obtaining their consent. More in The Australian.

The Telecomms Bill expands the existing oversight and safeguard arrangements consistent with recommendations from the bipartisan PJCIS report tabled in June 2013. Those oversight mechanisms include:

  • The Commonwealth Ombudsman will be given powers to inspect access to, and the use of, telecommunications data by Commonwealth, State and Territory enforcement agencies to ensure their compliance with the Telecommunications Interception and Access Act; 
  • The Inspector General of Intelligence and Security will inspect and report on ASIO’s access to data; 
  • The Privacy Commissioner will assess industry’s compliance with the Australian Privacy Principles, and monitor its non-disclosure obligations under the Telecommunications Act. The Attorney-General’s Department will include information on the operation of the scheme in its annual report; and 
  • Commonwealth law enforcement and security agencies are answerable to the Parliament, including through the PJCIS and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement. 

The Government believes the bill is an essential part of the national security reforms that will give our law enforcement and intelligence agencies the tools they need to fight crime and terrorism. To journalists however, it poses a potential threat to their credibility and freedoms.


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