Putting and end to leaks: Government to introduce sweeping national security laws. Photo: Greg NewingtonSpies who leak sensitive information will face tough new penalties of up to 10 years’ jail and internet firms could be forced to store customers’ data for up to two years under sweeping national security reforms.
Prompted in part by the leaks from renegade US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, the Abbott government will on Wednesday introduce legislation clamping down on intelligence officers who leak to journalists, lawyers and other members of the public.
Separately, Attorney-General George Brandis has given his strongest hint yet that the government will move ahead with controversial ”data retention” laws.
This would mean basic records of internet communications such as emails and Skype calls would have to be stored by providers for up to two years to help intelligence and law enforcement agencies carry out investigations and prosecutions.
The reforms come amid growing concern over the terrorism threat posed by an estimated 150 Australians who are involved with extremist groups in the Middle East, though they are also aimed at combatting international espionage.
Senator Brandis told Coalition MPs at a joint party room meeting on Tuesday that ”this is the way the West is moving”.
Last week, Britain introduced data retention laws that will force firms to store information such as the time and destination of phone calls, text messages, emails and Skype calls for up to a year.
Previously Senator Brandis has been reluctant to indicate whether the Abbott government would back data retention, despite strong calls from ASIO, the Australian Federal Police and similar agencies, all of whom say it is needed to keep the law up to date with technology.
The so-called ”metadata” – which does not include the content of communications – would be kept by the companies themselves rather than the government. Currently authorities can access such metadata without a warrant.
A parliamentary inquiry that examined the issue last year recommended that, if data retention were established, the current rules should apply, though if content and metadata were inseparable, a warrant would be needed and any system should include additional oversight.
However, privacy advocates argue data retention represents a massive expansion of surveillance powers. As recently as last week, a senior government source said there were no plans ”at this stage” to introduce data retention.
But on Tuesday, Senator Brandis’ spokesman said: ”The matter is under active consideration by the government as part of its comprehensive review of national security-related legislation.” The legislation to be introduced on Wednesday, meanwhile, is largely based on recommendations from a bipartisan report last year by a high-powered parliamentary committee that deals with intelligence and security.
It includes giving ASIO the power to hack into an innocent third party’s computer to access a target computer, and to infiltrate entire computer networks on a single warrant.
But Fairfax Media understands that in addition to those moves – which are supported in principle by Labor – the legislation includes a dramatic increase in the maximum jail sentence for spies who leak information from two to 10 years.
Also, the Abbott government will move to plug a ”legislative gap” by making it an offence to copy, keep or remove sensitive intelligence information, or to make a record of information without authorisation – such as making notes of a meeting without approval.
These offences will carry up to three years’ jail. At present, no crime is committed unless the copied material is actually handed over to someone else, but Senator Brandis told colleagues it could often be difficult to prove that the information had been passed on.
It is understood that these tougher penalties are in response to leaks by Mr Snowden and also by a case closer to home in which a former officer of the foreign intelligence agency the Australian Secret Intelligence Service is accusing the government of spying on East Timor during sensitive oil and gas negotiations.
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said the bipartisan nature of the legislation ”shouldn’t be mistaken for Labor giving a blank cheque to the government”.
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