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Aussie govt aims to take control of social media accounts

Paul Brislen, Editor. 17 February 2021, 9:39 am

The right to remain silent is one of those cornerstones of the criminal judicial system around the world, yet in a technical age it has repeatedly come under attack as authorities figure out how to operate in the new world.

While encryption and the ability to lock spying eyes out of your own content has come up for grabs in the past, Australia has once again upped the ante by introducing legislation that would allow it to take control of a suspect's social media accounts.

The Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2020 would give law enforcement in Australia new powers to "shine a light into the darkest recesses of the online world and hold those hiding there to account" according to Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton in December.

The legislation includes a "network activity warrant" giving officers the power to access networks where they believe criminal activity is being conducted. It also includes a "data disruption warrant" capability where officials will be able to disrupt suspected criminal activity by allowing officers to ""add, copy, delete or alter data to allow access to and disruption of relevant data in the course of an investigation".

But it is the final "account takeover power" granted in the bill that is causing eyebrows to be raised as it allows officers to directly take over control of an account and continue to operate it.

Dutton uses the child pornography angle to explain why this is necessary.

"The account takeover power will enable an officer to obtain exclusive control of an online account and prevent the person's continued access to a forum, and the further dissemination of child abuse material," Dutton said at the bill's introduction.

In its submission on the bill, Twitter expresses its concern over this capability and its impact on Twitter's rights and responsibilities as platform provider.

"Overall, we have overarching concerns across the relevant sections of the Bill that these three types of warrants can be implemented without providing proper notification to service providers," says its submission.

Twitter points out that warrants for this bill only need to be approved by a magistrate rather than a judge or the Administrative Appeals Panel (AAP), something that has been a problem in the past in Australia.

"One of the criticisms regarding the raids in June 2019 on the ABC's Sydney headquarters and former News Corp political journalist Annika Smethurst was that the search warrants were authorised by the registrar of a local state court. As recommended by this Committee, the power to issue such serious search warrants should be solely held by senior judges, such as those on State and Territory Supreme Courts, given the sensitivity of such investigations."

Submissions on the bill are being presented in Canberra this week and the bill is expected to be passed into law later this year.


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