Home affairs minister Peter Dutton has yet again appeared before the media to discuss some of his favourite obsessions: paedophiles, terrorists, drug traffickers, and, of course, his deep-seated desire to spy on the Australian public.
“If you’re a paedophile, you should be worried about these powers,” Dutton said at a 6 August press conference, referring to new laws that will enable the intelligence agency charged with international spying – the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) – to broaden its reach to the domestic sphere.
The move isn’t a complete surprise, as the minister confirmed these plans were close to fruition in March. Although, it should be remembered that along the way, Dutton has both denied and affirmed the proposal on a number of occasions.
Exposing the fact that the government was considering setting the ASD on its own citizens was the reason the AFP raided the house of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst in June last year.
The home affairs minister made his recent comments as he stood beside prime minister Scott Morrison, who was jointly announcing the new $1.67 billion Australian Cyber Security Strategy 2020, which so far, involves a vague smorgasbord of enhanced police powers and ASD domestic provisions.
But, while Dutton further cited drug traffickers specifically peddling methamphetamine to children as being part of “those people only” to whom these laws apply, civil libertarians will tell you that once the ASD turns its magnifying glass inwards, we’ll all be captured under its gaze.
“A more secure online”
The Morrison government’s 2020 Cyber Security Strategy comes at a time of increasing reliance upon the digital realm as a result of pandemic restrictions, as well as a recently government cited sustained cyber attack perpetrated locally by “a sophisticated state-based cyber actor”.
According to the Coalition, over the year 2019-20, the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) responded to 2,266 cyber security incidents, which translated to around six threats per day. And it estimates that cyber incidents targeting Australian businesses can cost up to $29 billion a year.
The strategy involves an investment of $1.67 billion over the next ten years to enhance cyber security in three key areas: government protecting critical infrastructure, business protecting customers and the public making “informed purchasing decisions”.
The new strategy is building upon its first iteration in 2016. It saw the opening of the ACSC, which is part of the ASD, as well as the establishment of a number of Joint Cyber Security Centres. JCSCs are based in capital cities and allow for state, territory and federal agencies to collaborate.
The Morrison government has allocated an extra $6.79 million to strengthen the JCSC program, as well as $40 million to establish a capability to counter foreign cyber criminals within the ACSC, and another $26 million to expand the ACSC’s ability to support small and medium businesses.
Bolstering law enforcement
The strategy measures announced on 6 August incorporated the $1.3 billion investment in cyber security initiatives that the prime minister was spruiking back in June. This included a dramatic increase in ASD staff.
So, last week, the prime minister was revealing further details, including extra police.
“There are additional AFP officers to actually then go and follow through on what this capability has provided us to identify people,” the PM said. “I mean, that’s a very practical thing. At the end of the day, someone has still got to slap the cuffs on, and that’s what this does.”
As part of the new package, the government is investing a further $124.9 million in strengthening law enforcement to counter cybercrime. And this will see a doubling of the Australian federal police cyber enforcement capacity by an additional 100 officers.
Investment specifically in the AFP will involve $89.9 million in funding. “This investment will enable the AFP to establish target development teams with partners, build technical cyber capabilities and enhance operational capacity,” the strategy reads.
Turning on its own
Then there’s the broadening of the Australian Signals Directorate. This will see $469.7 million invested into the agency over the next ten years, which will fund the recruitment of an additional 500 intelligence and cyber security personnel.
An additional $31.6 million will be invested in extending and expanding ASD capabilities to disrupt cybercrime offshore, “taking the fight to foreign criminals that seek to target Australians, and providing assistance to federal, state and territory law enforcement agencies.”
And it’s the last part of that equation that’s the worrying aspect for Australians: the ASD providing assistance to domestic law enforcement.
Formed in 1947, the ASD is charged with protecting the nation against threats from abroad. Section 7 of the Intelligence Services Act 2001 (Cth) outlines the agency’s functions. And it clearly states that ASD spying and information gathering powers are confined to “outside of Australia”.
However, the idea that ASD capabilities could be turned on the Australian citizenry has been floated a number of times over recent years. The Smethurst leak was just one. It revealed the secretaries of both Home Affairs and Defence discussing ASD agents hacking into domestic infrastructure.
Dutton was asked what it will mean to allow the ASD to assist the AFP, considering the spying agency can’t operate domestically. The minister replied that the government could have built an ASD-type technical capacity within the AFP, but that would just be a duplication and take too long.
So, to illustrate how the collaboration will work, Dutton told reporters that the AFP or the Australian Crime Intelligence Commission (ACIC), with a court warrant, would be able to counter a paedophile network targeting Australians, whether it was operating its server from “Seattle or Sydney”.
The minister continued his somewhat convoluted explanation with the assertion that the AFP and the ACIC need the power “to protect Australians here and abroad”. He remarked, “that’s the skill that we’re tapping into”, and that the power will only be available to the AFP and the ACIC, not the ASD.
“There’s more detail that we will provide in time,” Dutton concluded. While the strategy makes no mention of how any of these processes are supposed to work.
Big Dutton is watching
But, tellingly, the Australian Cyber Security Strategy 2020 does outline that the government “will ensure law enforcement agencies have appropriate legislative powers and technical capabilities to deter, disrupt and defeat the criminal exploitation of anonymising technology and the dark web”.
So, it seems that Home Affairs is set to continue on with its slow drip process of incrementally revealing to the public that it’s about to turn the nation’s international spying agency upon domestic targets, with pending law changes to enable this to happen.
The obvious reason to take such a cautious approach is to deter public outcry.
Since 9/11, successive Australian governments have passed at least 85 counterterrorism-related pieces of legislation, which have gradually whittled away at the rights and freedoms of all Australians.
And while Dutton maintains that the coming laws will only target terrorists and criminals of the worst kind, the creeping surveillance state these measures are contributing to build has implications for us all.
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.