The inquiry currently under way by Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security into more than 40 proposals to extend the surveillance, intelligence-gathering and enforcement powers of our law enforcement and security agencies has seen a number of myths peddled by proponents of still-greater powers to intrude on Australians’ privacy and basic rights.

A persistent one is the suggestion that Australia’s laws governing surveillance and intelligence-gathering are desperately in need of updating, that they have lain untouched since the technological pre-history of 1979, when the internet was the dream of a few American scientists and academics. In evidence to the Committee yesterday from some of Australia’s most senior policemen, we again heard how laws written in 1979 have been overtaken by technology.

It’s a seductive argument, isn’t it? Technology has moved on, we’ve shifted our communications online — why not just allow what the state used to be able to do with phones, with the internet?

That’s misleading, of course — we live, work, communicate, have relationships and engage socially and politically far more online than we ever did on the phone.

But where the argument falls down first is that the laws haven’t been overtaken by technology. The laws about surveillance have been routinely updated. According to the Parliamentary Library, there have been 45 separate amendments to the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 since September 2001 alone.

A number have been trivial — changing “chairman” to “chair”, for instance. But others created new offences that could be used to justify wiretapping, and as long ago as 2004, cybercrime was included in the framework. Far from being an outdated framework, our surveillance laws are in rude health and have been regularly extended to suit the demands of law enforcement.

Apparently, though, law enforcement agencies always want more power, no matter how much they’re given.

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Peter Fray

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