Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has made the case for giving Australia’s foreign intelligence agency a role in domestic law enforcement, a move experts said would be an “enormous shift” for the nation.
Mr Dutton on Tuesday confirmed there was a proposal to expand the remit of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), revealing a split with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop as the government seeks to balance domestic security and civil liberties.
Ms Bishop had dismissed reports at the weekend that the government was considering giving the ASD more powers, saying there was no “national security gap” to justify such a change.
Denying the proposed changes could mean “spying taking place on Australian citizens”, Mr Dutton argued on Tuesday there was a need for the government to “look at the capacity” of the agency.
“If we had a capacity to disrupt, for example, the live-streaming of children being sexually exploited, would we explore ways that we could do that within the law? Of course we would,” he said.
“So we will have a look at all of those options.”
The ABC reported on Tuesday the additional powers being considered included allowing the ASD to shut down computer systems engaged in criminal activity such as terrorism or child pornography.
The agency could also be allowed to conduct covert tests on Australian businesses to test their vulnerability to hacking attacks.
Mr Dutton also stressed that the expansion of the agencies would be subject to checks and balances.
“If there was to be any look at ways in which we could try and address the cyber-threat more effectively, [they would be] accompanied by the usual protections, including warrant powers, either by the attorney-general or the relevant justice, whatever the case may be.”
What is the Australian Signals Directorate?
Under current laws, the Australian Signals Directorate is tasked with using technology to gather intelligence on offshore threats, which is then provided to the Australian Defence Force and Australia’s allies.
It is the agency that was caught trying to listen in to former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s mobile phone, causing a bitter diplomatic rift between the two nations.
While the ASD is currently prohibited from monitoring Australian citizens, a task left to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and ASIO, the agency does give technical advice to those agencies.
Deakin University security expert Greg Barton told The New Daily it would be “an enormous shift if the ASD had its remit extended”.
Professor Barton said giving the agency the power to work domestically would mean it could use its superior technology to disrupt threats in “real time”.
But he said he believed Australians would be worried about an agency designed at mitigating offshore threats being used on Australian soil.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute Border Security Program head John Coyne told The New Daily it was vital there was an “open public debate” if the ASD’s powers were to be extended.
“In a general sense, you would be hard pressed to find someone opposed if the government says, ‘We want to give the ASD more powers to save people who are being sexually exploited online’,” he said.
“And I’m not arguing against that. [But] the idea is not to provide more powers to the ASD to undertake fishing trips.”
Labor, meanwhile, seized on Mr Dutton’s comments on Tuesday, saying he and the Foreign Minister were now at odds on national security.
“There is no room for political infighting on a measure as important as national security,” shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said.
“There is certainly no room for freelancing from Peter Dutton.
“This government needs to get its facts straight. Is there a proposal to expand the powers of ASD, or not?”
Greens Justice spokesman Nick McKim went further, claiming Peter Dutton was “taking Australia down a dangerous path to an authoritarian surveillance state”.