From: The Age (Australia)

Philip Dorling

AUSTRALIAN law enforcement and government agencies have sharply increased  their access without warrant to vast quantities of private telephone and  internet data, prompting new calls for tighter controls on surveillance  powers.

Government agencies accessed private telecommunications data and  internet logs more than 300,000 times during criminal and revenue investigations  in 2011-12, a 20 per cent increase on the level of surveillance activity in the  year before.

Figures from the federal Attorney-General’s  Department show that on average, these agencies obtained private data from  telecommunications and internet service providers 5800 times every  week.

The data available to government agencies under federal  law  includes phone and internet account information, outwards and inwards call  details, phone and internet access location data, and details of Internet  Protocol addresses visited (though not the actual content of  communications).

Data access is authorised by senior police officers or  officials, rather than by a judicial warrant.

New South Wales Police were  the biggest users of telecommunications data, with 103,824 access authorisations  in 2011-12. Victoria Police accessed data 67,173 times in the same period, while  the Australian Federal Police did so 23,001 times.

Victoria Police  has said that the increased data access could be attributed to ‘‘investigator  knowledge becom[ing] more widely known, technology changes and auto processing  [that has] simplified the process’’.

Federal government agencies using  telecommunications data include the Australian Crime Commission, the Australian  Securities and Investments Commission, the Australian Tax Office, numerous  government departments, Medicare, Centrelink and Australia Post.

It is  also used by all state police and anti-corruption bodies and a growing number of  state government departments and  agencies,  including the Victorian  Department of Primary Industries, the Victorian Taxi Directorate and WorkSafe  Victoria.

Data is also accessed by the RSPCA in Victoria,  Queensland and Tasmania, and by local governments, including Wyndham City  Council in Melbourne’s west. The RSPCA has investigative powers in respect of  animal cruelty.

‘‘This is the personal data of hundreds of  thousands, indeed millions of Australians, and it seems that just about anyone  in government can get it,’’ said Australian Greens senator Scott  Ludlam.

He said the increase in access authorisations demonstrated the  current data access regime was ‘‘out of control’’ and amounted to the framework  for a ‘‘surveillance state’’.

‘‘There can’t be much in the way of working  checks and balances if we have a 20 per cent surge in activity in one year, and  more than 300,000 authorisations.’’

Statistics for access by the  Australian Security Intelligence Organisation are security classified and not  published.

The federal government’s proposals for a further expansion of  law enforcement access to telecommunications data, including a minimum two-year  data retention standard for phone and internet providers, have generated public  debate and controversy.

However, Attorney-General Nicola Roxon did not issue any media release to  accompany her department’s report, which was tabled in Parliament without debate  on Thursday, the final parliamentary sitting day for the year.

A spokesperson for Ms Roxon said ‘‘these new statistics show telephone  interception and surveillance powers are playing an even greater role for police  so they can successfully pursue kidnappers, murderers and organised  criminals’’.

‘‘Parliament’s intelligence committee is currently  reviewing telephone interception and surveillance powers to ensure police can  stay one step in front of criminals, while also having have the right checks and  balances to ensure that those who enforce our national security laws do so  responsibly.’’ Senator Ludlam called for tighter controls on access to personal  data, including a requirement for warrants to be issued by an independent  authority.

‘‘It’s incumbent on the Parliament’s national security  inquiry to recommend some form of warrant authorisation be introduced, and that  there be a review and reduction of the government agencies that can access the  personal communications data of millions of Australians.’’

However, the  latest statistics also show a 7.7per cent jump in the number of  telecommunications interception warrants issued to law enforcement agencies,  with 3755 phone taps being authorised in 2011-12.



■ Australian Crime Commission

■ Government  departments including the Tax Office, Medicare, Centrelink, Australia Post

■  Statistics for access by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation are  security classified and not published


■ State police and anti-corruption bodies

■  Government departments including the Victorian Taxi Directorate, Worksafe

■  RSPCA in Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania

■ Local governments including  Wyndham City Council in Melbourne’s west