Privacy fears over phone-tap laws
AAP | February 15 2006
Civil libertarians are alarmed at plans to give police powers to phone-tap innocent people and trace their emails and text messages.
The federal government will on Thursday introduce new laws into parliament designed to hand police the right to trace innocent third parties they think might be able to lead them to a suspect.
Attorney-General Philip Ruddock insists enough safeguards are built into the proposals to protect the privacy of the innocent, but civil liberties groups are not so sure.
"This particular proposal means that people who aren't suspected of a crime - that's innocent people - are going to weather this," Australian Council for Civil Liberties president Terry O'Gorman said.
His NSW counterpart, Cameron Murphy, said Australia already had the highest phone-tapping rate in the world, out-stripping the United States.
The proposed laws allow police and Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) agents to tap phone calls and trace e-mails and text messages of people believed to be in contact with suspected criminals.
Police will be able to have a tap in place for up to 45 days and ASIO will have three months.
Mr Ruddock says the powers will be subject to strict controls, including judicial oversight.
Police will have to prove they have exhausted all other avenues of investigation and the crime they are investigating will have to carry at least a seven-year jail sentence.
"The issuing authority - that is, the judge - has to be satisfied in relation to a number of other matters - that is, the privacy of a person won't be unduly interfered with," Mr Ruddock told ABC radio.
"(The judge) has to take into account the seriousness of the offences being investigated, how much of the information would be likely to assist in the investigation by the agency, to what extent alternative methods of investigating it have been used, and how much use of such methods would be likely to assist the investigation by the agency of the offence," he said.
"So you can see these are very significant tests that have to be satisfied."
But Mr O'Gorman said police were known to go "judge shopping".
"Law enforcers go judge shopping. They go to the ... judges who more readily give warrants and are less questioning than others."
He also said a large range of offences carry a minimum seven-year sentence, including in some cases tax evasion, extortion, bribery, arms trading, some sex crimes and immigration offences.
Mr Murphy, president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, said he did not think safeguards built into the proposed legislation were enough.
"We've seen ... already that Australian phones are 26 times more likely to be bugged than an American phone," he told ABC radio.
"There's much more phone-tapping in Australia than in any other nation on earth and judicial oversight has done nothing to stem that."
The Telecommunications (Interception) Amendment Bill also will make permanent existing powers to tap suspects' phones and monitor their emails and text messages.
The bill is a response to a report by former head of the Attorney-General's Department Tony Blunn, handed down in September last year.
Mr Blunn found that, although phone tapping was essential to fighting crime and protecting national security, there should be tighter laws to protect privacy.
The Australian Greens and the Australian Democrats have vowed to oppose the bill.
Last modified February 15, 2006