Peter Dutton renews calls for 'public debate' over domestic surveillance powers

Amy Remeikis
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

The government appears to be moving forward with a proposal to allow Australia’s cyber spy agency access to onshore dark web criminals, with Peter Dutton reiterating it’s time for a “public debate” over domestic surveillance powers.

The ABC reported the government has advanced a proposal to change the Australian Signals Directorate’s mandate, which would allow the agency – whose motto is to “reveal their secrets, protect our own” – to spy on Australian citizens at home.

Under the law, the ASD is banned from accessing Australian’s online activity, limiting its surveillance powers to overseas based servers.

News Corp national political editor Annika Smethurst first reported amendments were being considered to the ASD legislation in 2018. The story was strongly denied by the government at the time, and subsequently saw Smethurst embroiled in a press freedom fight after her home and office were raided by the Australian federal police.

Dutton confirmed new powers which would change the ASD’s domestic remit were still on the table in June last year, while refusing to confirm details of the proposal.

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The Australian federal police wants the power to be able to call in the ASD when its hunts for cyber criminals, including those related to child abuse and terrorism, lead back to Australian borders.

But given the sensitivity, the AFP has also publicly shied away from confirming it is chasing the additional surveillance assistance.

AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw told the National Press Club on Wednesday the Australian intelligence community was “pretty happy with what [the AFP] have, but there are some challenges there in some additional legislation [that is required]”.

“It wouldn’t be right for me to ventilate that here,” he said.

Scott Morrison said Australia’s crime and intelligence agencies would “get what they need to protect kids”.

“I’ve always said that what happens in the real world should happen in the digital world,” he said.

“If thought someone was abusing a child somewhere, I would kick the door down. I would go and try to rescue that child. So those who want to abuse children shouldn’t get to be able to hide in the internet. And if they are doing it, I am going to use every tool at my disposal to try to protect that child.”

The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, told the national broadcaster he believed it was time to have that conversation, a call he first made publicly mid last year.

“At the moment, if there is a server in Sydney that has images of a five- or six-month-old child being sexually exploited and tortured, then that may not be discoverable, particularly if it’s encrypted and protected to a point where the AFP or the Acic can’t gain access to that server,” Dutton told the ABC.

“It can be a different picture if that server is offshore, so there is an anomaly that exists at the moment.”

The Australian Law Council president, Pauline Wright, said while protecting Australians remained the priority, there needed to be safeguards to ensure civil liberties were also protected.

“This proposal would radically alter the current security landscape for how Australian Signals Directorate operates and there will need to be very strong safeguards in any such proposal,” she said.

“The Law Council would want to see the details of those safeguards to ensure they provide proper protections for the rights and freedoms that Australians rightly expect.

“These rights and freedoms have already been eroded in recent years and should not be further undermined.”

The Greens senator Nick McKim said any proposal to expand the ASD’s spy powers domestically should be rejected.

“It’s a proposal for the government to spy on Australians, in Australia. Once they are allowed to operate in country we will never get them out,” McKim said.

“Peter Dutton’s strategy is clear. He is trying to frighten Australians then exploit that fear to bring in even more draconian powers for security agencies.”

A review into Australia’s intelligence laws which was ordered in 2018 was handed to the government in December last year. It is required to release an unclassified report to the public some time this year, but is yet to announce when.