Spare a thought for Peter Dutton. It was all so embarrassing. An ABC story alleging unlawful killings of unarmed men and children by Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan that should never have gotten out. A couple of years later, a story pops up in the Sunday Telegraph uncovering plans to expand the surveillance powers of the Australian Signals Directorate via Ministerial discretion that should never have seen the light of day.

Both stories a thorn in the government’s side and both based on leaked classified documents. Spare a thought for Peter Dutton who had to go out and “express concern” after the Australian Federal Police raided the ABC, as well as the home of Newscorp journalist, Annika Smethurst. Having to stand there, straight faced, telling the AFP they needed to think about what they’ve done and to think twice before raiding journalists again. How utterly humiliating.

People were outraged, the front cover of every newspaper in the country blacked-out, calling for an end to government secrecy and insisting upon the public’s ‘right to know’. Such a bad look.

It could have been so much easier. It’s 2021 after all. Ever heard of the internet? Much easier to hack the journalist’s computer, identify the source, hack that computer, delete the files and arrest the source. Much easier and far less embarrassing.

If only that sort of thing was lawful. But who would write such a law? Who would pass it? It would be entirely Orwellian in nature.

You might have guessed where this is heading.

Such a law was indeed written and It is now the law of the land.

Last month the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2020 sailed through Federal Parliament in two days with barely a passing mention. Not surprising really because we’ve got a bit on at the moment.

The Bill allows the AFP and other agencies to modify, add, copy or delete information on people’s devices, and in some cases, take over personal accounts.

This means they can delete your emails, your social media or any online account considered a “threat” if it assists them in their investigations. They could even post or interact with others using any one of those accounts pretending to be you.

The Bill creates three new types of warrants to make this possible: ‘network activity warrant’, ‘data disruption warrant’ and ‘account takeover warrant’.

Unlike other types of warrants, these ones don’t need to be issued by a judge or a magistrate. They can be issued by a member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal if they agree that a warrant is ‘reasonably necessary’ to investigate a crime which has a jail term of more than three years. 

This is way outside the scope of the AAT and undermines the separation of powers, given that they sit under the executive (government) branch rather than the judicial branch.

There are no safeguards in the bill protecting against the abuse of these powers and you don’t even have to be the subject of a warrant to have your devices disrupted.

So where is the public outrage now? Where are the dozens of articles in mainstream media expressing concerns that journalists and lawyers could be targeted by these laws? Surely legislation giving such extraordinary powers with no regard for privacy would be worthy of some sort of media attention and debate, right?

Ah yes, Peter Dutton did an interview on 2GB.

In December, 2020, Dutton told Ray Hadley about the threat of terrorism and horrific child abuse material on the dark web. He said that technology had gotten away from them and they needed to catch up to deal with these unspeakable crimes. A relieved Hadley commended him for developing the legislation.

It would be one thing if these warrants could only be issued to investigate serious crimes of this level but in reality the thresholds are set much, much lower.

With legislation like this, Australia is moving further away from global norms and from the expectations of privacy protections that the public is now demanding. Laws which give authorities immense powers are rarely repealed or altered. Since 9/11, well over 200 pieces of legislation which curtail fundamental rights and freedoms have been passed through Australian parliaments.

Australia needs a statutory right to privacy, like the UK and Canada have, to balance out these laws. Otherwise, Australia will continue on this slippery slope towards [redacted].