Australia’s electronic surveillance framework reform process

The Internet and digital communications have forever changed the way we live, work and do business. These technological advances have undoubtedly improved many aspects of our lives. However, they were also adopted and exploited by criminals, terrorists and other dangerous parties. Australian laws have struggled to keep up, creating significant challenges for agencies with a legitimate need to exercise electronic surveillance powers.

Law enforcement agencies, including anti-corruption bodies, and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) sometimes require access to specific information.

The objective of this electronic surveillance reform is to develop a new single law that:

  • better protects people’s information and data, including reflecting what it means to communicate in the 21st century;
  • ensures that law enforcement agencies and ASIO have the powers they need to investigate serious crimes and security threats;
  • is transparent and usable for operational agencies and supervisory bodies, as well as for the industry that must comply with the obligations of the framework;
  • modernises and streamlines as much as technologically possible, by updating key concepts and clearly identifying the agencies that may request access to this information;
  • contains adequate thresholds and robust, effective and consistent controls, limits, safeguards and oversight on the use of these intrusive powers;
  • protects the community from serious crimes and threats.

Without access to this information, law enforcement would not be able to prevent and prosecute the most serious criminal activities, such as child sexual abuse, organised crime and cybercrime. For ASIO, accessing this information and data is crucial to protect Australia from serious national security threats, such as terrorism or foreign interference in Australian democratic institutions.

The protection of and access to this information and data is governed by a number of laws:

  • the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act of 1979 (TIA Act)
  • the Surveillance Devices Act of 2004 (SD Act)
  • parts of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act of 1979 (ASIO Act)
  • parts of the Telecommunications Act of 1997 (Telecommunications Act)
  • discrete parts of other Commonwealth and state and territory laws.

These laws protect various types of information and data of individuals from unauthorised access and only allow government agencies to lawfully access information and data under limited circumstances. The laws also require companies that own telecommunications to provide services to protect this information and to help government agencies access it in certain situations.

The reform bill aims to repeal the TIA Act, the SD Act and the relevant parts of the ASIO Act and replace the current patchwork of laws with a single, streamlined and technologically neutral law.

The development of the new framework will be Australia’s largest reform of national security laws in more than four decades. The new framework will be developed in line with the principles and values that underline Australia’s liberal democratic society. It is therefore essential that the policy underpinning the new framework is informed by the views of those involved, stakeholders and Australian society.


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