Opening statement to Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security Potential reforms of national security legislation

With Simon Breheny

The suite of policies proposed in the Attorney-General’s discussion paper add up to one of the most significant attacks on civil liberties in Australian history. Many of the proposals breach the rule of law, severely curb civil liberties and threaten freedom of speech. Our submission focused on the data retention proposal. We were disturbed to see the Attorney-General support this proposal yesterday. In our view, the data retention proposal is a much greater threat to privacy than even the proposed Australia Card was in the 1980s. The complexity of these discussion papers’ proposals is significant. Many of them interact with multiple pieces of legislation. Few have been elaborated or justified. They should be dealt with separately, with separate legislation and separate inquiries. The burden of proof rests on the government to prove to the public that after 10 years of continuous, unrelenting increases in national security power—the last major change was as recently as August this year—there is still a clear need for such extraordinary changes. Almost every single proposal in the discussion paper has serious problems. For instance, the proposal to establish an offence for failure to assist in the decryption of communications is a clear abrogation of the government’s responsibility to uphold the privilege against self-incrimination and the right to silence—vital features of our criminal justice system. We call on this committee to reject this proposal.

We also oppose the default extended period for warrants from 90 days to six months, the lowering of thresholds for obtaining warrants, the power of the Attorney-General to unilaterally vary warrants and the power of ASIO to move, alter or delete data. But the most extraordinary proposal we would like to talk about is that of data retention. This draconian proposal for mandated and indiscriminate retention of the online data of all Australians is completely lacking in proportionality, undermines basic freedoms and is in fundamental conflict with the right to privacy. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, yet no evidence has been presented to justify one of the world’s most onerous data retention regimes. Abstract references to emerging threats and cybercrime are patronisingly insufficient as justification for such an extreme example of state power.

The collection and storage of data by internet service providers also creates a considerable data security problem. Rather than dispersing information, data retention creates silos of information begging to be attacked by the very criminals this proposal seeks to limit. Many European nations have had data retention regimes in place for a number of years. A study conducted over a five-year period, from 2005 to 2010, found no statistically significant increase in crime clearance rates in countries that had adopted data retention. ‘Australians should not allow themselves to be bullied into accepting a proposal which has ominous implications and particularly a grave temptation for abuse by the government.’ That was said by the IPA in 1986 in relation to the proposed Australia card, and the same holds true for the proposals being considered here today.