Government wants e-mail spying to last for longer

Amendments to the Federal Telecommunications Interception Act will be put before the House of Representatives today, as the government seeks to extend the limit of a sunset clause which allows authorities to monitor internal and government communications without a specific warrant.

The federal government is hoping to extend current provisions in the act which permit various government and security agencies to intercept communications sent over government networks — including those sent by the public to the government — without an interception warrant until 12 December 2009, after they were originally set to expire on 13 June this year.

According to a parliamentary briefing paper released last week: “Exemption is provided to the employees of a number of Commonwealth and state law enforcement and security agencies, if they are responsible for operating, protecting or maintaining a network or if they are responsible for enforcement of the professional standards (however described) of the agency or authority.”

The proposed amendments have already attracted criticism. “There needs to be accountability when it comes to these extraordinary powers that police are granted and if things are going to be intercepted there needs to be a warrant,” said a spokesperson for Greens Senator Kerry Nettle, who opposed other changes to the act last year which permit authorities to access “stored communications” including unread e-mails under a normal search warrant.

The spokesperson said the changes — made by the previous government — had made it easier for agencies such as the Australian Federal Police to monitor people’s online communications, as a standard search warrant “is far easier to obtain than a telecommunications interception warrant”.

“One of our concerns is that the existing scope of this legislation is already quite wide, and in our view there needs to be more accountability, not less, especially as the changes up for debate tomorrow extend not only to government employees but potentially to members of the public as well,” the spokesperson added.

Dale Clapperton, chair of online privacy advocacy group Electronic Frontiers Australia, said that the group prepared an extensive submission to the Attorney General’s office last year opposing changes to the legislation and the organisation is “still concerned about the privacy issues which arose as a result of the 2007 amendments”.

Further amendments up for debate today include changes to technical provisions outlined in the legislation relating to the number and duration of warrants required to intercept communications from various individual devices.

Currently, the legislation requires authorities to gain a warrant for each separate type of device it wishes to monitor. However, under the proposed changes warrant conditions will potentially be extended to cover any devices purchased by the individual in the future.

“At the moment if an agency wants to monitor your telecommunications they need to seek a warrant for each device, but now it can apply to what you may own in the future,” said the Greens spokesperson.

“Essentially warrants are there to provide accountability, and any move to water down this accountability is of concern to the Greens and we will continue to watch it closely.”

Marcus Browne,