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Australian Parliament Approves Bill that Gives Police Powers to Hack and Disrupt Dark Web

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Federal police and organised crime investigators will be able to take over the online “dark web” accounts of criminals and terrorists and hack into their networks under new powers that passed Parliament on Wednesday.

But legal and human rights groups are concerned the government didn’t adopt all the recommendations from a cross-party committee, particularly a call for judicial oversight, and the laws were debated and passed in less than 24 hours.

The Australian Federal Police and Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission will now have unprecedented powers to penetrate the networks of criminals using domestic servers to operate on the dark web. They’re also able to modify or delete harmful content such as child exploitation material under the laws.

These powers will now be reviewed independently after three years, by Parliament after four years and end after five, and there are stronger protections for journalists and third parties under changes the government made in response to concerns raised by Parliament’s powerful intelligence and security committee.

Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said she had worked through the committee’s recommendations in good faith and amendments would ensure it was more likely warrants would be issued for more serious types of crime.

But she did not adopt a recommendation that warrants should be approved by either a Federal or Supreme Court judge, rather than a member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The Greens attempted to insert this higher bar for warrants but were unsuccessful.

The Greens also argued the government had not properly made it clear why the new powers were needed, and that their scope was “disproportionately broad” compared to the threats they were directed at.

Ms Andrews said the changes would give law enforcement agencies tools that kept pace with technology.

She pointed to the arrests of 290 people in Operation Ironside, which involved Australian and American law enforcement cooperating to offer an encrypted messaging service to criminal networks.

“This bill is just one more step the government is taking to ensure our agencies maintain that edge,” she said.

“Under our changes the AFP will have more tools to pursue organised crime gangs to keep drugs off our street and out of our community, and those who commit the most heinous crimes against children.”

The Human Rights Law Centre accused the government of rushing the bill through Parliament, after it was debated and passed in the lower house on Tuesday then the Senate on Wednesday morning.

Kieran Pender, a senior lawyer at the centre, said the law created sweeping surveillance powers that would have a chilling effect on journalists and whistleblowers.

“Given the powers are unprecedented and extraordinarily intrusive, they should have been narrowed to what is strictly necessary and subject to robust safeguards,” he said.

“It is alarming that, instead of accepting [all of] the committee’s recommendations and allowing time for scrutiny of subsequent amendments, the Morrison government rushed these laws through Parliament in less than 24 hours.”

The Law Council of Australia said the failure to adopt the recommendation for judges to issue the warrants was disappointing.

“These warrants have the potential to cause significant loss, damage or disruption to lawful computer users who are not suspected of any wrongdoing,” president Jacob Brasch said.

He noted the government intended to consider these matters in other legislation, but said the committee’s recommendations were specific to the “novel, extraordinary and intrusive” warrant-based powers in this legislation.

Security officials and law enforcement have been pushing for similar powers for years. They became the subject of controversy after police raided the home of then-News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst after she was leaked an earlier proposal for the laws.

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Written by Kofi Anash

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