Warranted access to telecommunication content
The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 (TIA
Act) provides a legislative framework that criminalises the interception and
accessing of telecommunications. However, the Act prescribes exceptions that
enable law enforcement, anti-corruption and national security agencies to apply
for warrants to intercept communications when investigating serious crimes and
threats to national security. The warrant regime provides these agencies with
lawful access to telecommunications content.
This chapter provides an overview of the existing warrant framework within
the TIA Act and then discusses opportunities for legislative reform. The
overview provides an insight into the complexity of the current legislation.
In examining the warranted access regime to telecommunications content,
the committee was informed by the 2013 report of the Parliamentary Joint
Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) which recommended that the
proportionality test within the TIA Act be revised and consideration be given
to implementing a consistent proportionality test across interception and
access to telecommunications content. The committee was also informed by the
2015 report of the PJCIS into mandatory data retention that re-considered the
issue of proportionality in context of necessity, efficacy and the current risk
An overview of the warrant regime
Chapters 2 and 3 of the TIA Act
provide for warranted access to telecommunications, including both communications
passing across telecommunications services (that is, the interception of live
communications), and stored telecommunications content.
The Attorney-General's Department (the department) provided the
following description of the four existing warrant regimes that enable law
enforcement and anti-corruption agencies to lawfully access the content of
The TIA Act contains four warrant regimes for lawful access
to the content of communications by law enforcement and anti-corruption
agencies. Three of these warrants relate to access to 'live' communications,
and the fourth relates to access to 'stored' communications held by carriers.
The distinction between access to live and stored
communications currently embodied in the TIA Act is based on an assumption that
stored communications were generally more 'considered' and so less privacy
In addition, the Act provides for warrants to be issued for specific
purposes, such as locating missing persons or locating a caller in an
Telecommunications service warrants and named person warrants
The provisions within Chapter 2 of the TIA Act enable 'agencies' to
apply for telecommunications service warrants and named person warrants to an
eligible judge or nominated member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal
(AAT). The Act prescribes that the judge or nominated member of the AAT may
issue a warrant in the circumstances where they are satisfied that the
information likely to be obtained under the warrant would be likely to assist
in the investigation of a 'serious offence' and they have had regard to a
number of factors to ensure that the issuing of a warrant is proportionate in
This is referred to as a proportionality test.
For the purposes of Chapter 2 of the TIA Act, 'agencies' is defined as
'interception agencies' which is further defined as the Australian Federal
Police (AFP), the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) or the Australian
Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI); or an eligible authority of a
state in relation to which a ministerial declaration under section 34 is in
force. Section 34 of the TIA Act enables the Minister, by legislative
instrument, at the request of the Premier of a State, to declare an 'eligible
authority' of that State to be an 'agency' for the purposes of the Act. The Act
defines an 'eligible authority' in relation to a state to mean:
in any case—the police force of that state; or
in the case of New South Wales—the Crime Commission, the
Independent Commission Against Corruption, the Inspector of the Independent
Commission Against Corruption, the Police Integrity Commission or the Inspector
of the Police Integrity Commission; or
in the case of Victoria—the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption
Commission (IBAC) or the Victorian Inspectorate; or
in the case of Queensland—the Crime and Misconduct Commission; or
in the case of Western Australia—the Corruption and Crime
Commission or the Parliamentary Inspector of the Corruption and Crime
in the case of South Australia—the Independent Commissioner Against
'Serious offence' is defined in section 5D of the TIA Act. The
definition is complex but includes, among other things, murder, kidnapping,
bribery, market misconduct and other offences that are punishable by
imprisonment for life or for a period, or maximum period, of at least seven
Stored telecommunications warrants
In certain circumstances, 'enforcement agencies' (defined below) can
require that a carrier preserve all stored communications the carrier holds
that relate to the person or telecommunications service specified in a notice.
The communications stored may then be accessed, by warrant, in prescribed circumstances.
Like telecommunications service warrants, a proportionality test is also
applied. The proportionality test applied in this circumstance involves
Where an 'enforcement agency' has applied to an 'issuing authority'
(defined below) for a stored telecommunications warrant, the TIA Act provides
that the 'issuing authority' may issue the warrant if satisfied that the
information likely to be obtained under the warrant would be likely to assist
in the investigation of a 'serious contravention' and the 'issuing authority'
has had regard to a number of matters to ensure that the issuing of a warrant
is proportionate in the circumstances.
'Enforcement agency' is defined in section 5 of the TIA Act. The
definition includes: the AFP, a police force of a state, anti-corruption
bodies, the ACLEI, the ACC, authorities prescribed by legislation, and, any
body whose functions include: (i) administering a law imposing a pecuniary
penalty; or (ii) administering a law relating to the protection of the public
'Issuing authority' is defined in section 5 of the Act as 'a person in
respect of whom an appointment is in force under section 6DB'.
Certain judges, magistrates and AAT members who are also enrolled as legal
practitioners may be appointed by the Minister to be an 'issuing authority'.
'Serious contravention' is defined in section 5E of the TIA Act. Like
the definition of 'serious offence' in section 5D of the Act, the definition of
'serious contravention' in section 5E is complex. It includes a Commonwealth,
state or territory offence punishable by imprisonment for a period, or a
maximum period, of at least three years. The definition also includes offences
punishable by a maximum fine of at least 180 penalty units
or a contravention of the law which would make an individual liable to pay a
pecuniary penalty of the same magnitude.
Removing legislative duplication in the warrant regime
Throughout this inquiry the committee received evidence regarding the
complexity of the existing legislative framework that governs warranted access
to telecommunications content.
Stakeholders consistently impressed upon the committee the need to remove
legislative duplication from the warrant framework. Many proposed the introduction
of a single warrant regime that authorised interception of content, whether
live or stored, on the basis of prescribed attributes. This is referred to as
'attribute-based interception'. Proponents of this approach argued that it
would reduce complexity by removing the distinction between a 'serious offence'
and a 'serious contravention' while also providing a single clear
Submitters identified an administrative burden associated with the
complex duplication within the existing TIA Act. The then Director-General of
[I]n order to look at a particular individual we may need to
take out three or four different warrants, each of which requires a considered
three- or four- page argument, and yet the argument is actually the same in all
of the warrants. So to be able to combine a number of warranted activities
together...is one such example. The ability to intercept according to a number of
different selectors, rather than just the name of a person and a telephone
number, for example, to be able to intercept on the basis of other attributes—call
areas, time or whatever—would be a great help. It does not in any way change
the level of intrusiveness but it simply makes the bureaucratic processes a lot
ASIO noted however, that there would be instances where legislative
duplication would remain both necessary and appropriate:
Over time, the many amendments to the TIA Act have resulted
in duplication and complexity making the Act difficult to understand and apply.
Conversely, there is intentional duplication for provisions that apply
specifically to ASIO with separate provisions for enforcement agencies. For
example, voluntary disclosure provisions for ASIO are covered under section 174
whereas section 177 relate[s] to enforcement agencies. ASIO supports the
recommendation to remove legislative duplication but notes it should not be
applied in instances where there is a necessary distinction between ASIO's
security intelligence role and law enforcement agencies.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) stated that in its view, '[r]emoving
duplicative processes and complexity within the TIA Act [would] simplify the
processes for agencies and may assist in achieving transparency by removing
The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) and the
Communications Alliance similarly supported removing legislative duplication;
these organisations added that legislative duplication between the TIA Act and
the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Telecommunications Act) should also be
Although many submitters were strongly supportive of a single warrant
regime, the Law Council of Australia (Law Council) cautioned that it would be
important not to introduce such a regime at the expense of privacy safeguards:
The Law Council supports the removal of legislative
duplication but not where this involves a single warrant regime which would
make it difficult for issuing authorities to adequately assess the privacy
impacts of the powers under the warrant. Given the particularly intrusive
nature of telecommunications interception, legislative clarity must not be
achieved to the detriment of privacy principles.
A single attribute-based interception regime
The department explained that under the existing provisions of the TIA
Act, warrants issued may only authorise the interception of 'services' or
'devices'—such as a particular internet connection or telephone:
The service or device identifiers are the technical means
that the telecommunications industry uses to identify the communications for
retrieval under a warrant. This approach is technologically-specific and
reflects historic assumptions about how telecommunications operate. The diversification
of the telecommunications industry, changing communications habits and changes
to the technical operation of modern telecommunications networks mean that new
ways of identifying communications are both available and required.
The department stated that in its view '[w]ithout reform, technological
change will make the current, service and device-based provisions obsolete'.
The department recommended the single attribute-based warrant regime as a more
targeted and technologically-neutral approach:
[T]he reality is that this Act was very cleverly drafted in
1979 in that it was technologically neutral and it has been able to capture all
communications as they have come along, without any need to consider the
implications of that technology. The reality now is that people communicate
with very smart phones...and they do allow you to communicate in many, many ways
with one device. The Act really is just saying that law enforcement can
intercept that device without any approach that allows you to target the kind
of information that you want.
What the Act does not do at the moment is have any real way
to define what kind of information should be collected by law enforcement for
them to investigate crimes. What the Act currently says is you can collect
evidence; however, you must do it in a very broad, crude way.
The department explained that it was advocating for a change in the
legislation to a single attribute-based warrant regime as such a regime would:
better protect the privacy of communications 'because law
enforcement and national security agencies [would] have to determine the kind
of communications they want to collect'; and
allow telecommunications providers 'to target a stream of traffic
rather than volumes of traffic'.
ASIO echoed these views. According to ASIO, the TIA Act, as currently
written, 'limits the technical means by which agencies can conduct interception
by requiring interception be based on either a "service" identifier
(for example, a telephone number or email address) or a piece of
"equipment" (for example, a mobile telephone handset)'.
ASIO advocated the 'decoupling' of the techniques for interception from the
authorisation to intercept and expressed its support for attribute-based
"Attributes" are specific identifying
characteristics that can be used in combination to identify unique
communications of interest to ASIO. Attribute-based interception encompasses service-based
or equipment-based interception. It also allows ASIO to target specific
attributes to collect communications of interest more effectively and less
ASIO provided some examples of attributes that could be used:
individual attributes that could be combined to enable better interception
targeting could include:
- the source and/or destination of the communication;
- the type of communication (for example, a video
call, email, SMS);
equipment being used to convey the communication (for example mobile telephone
handset, cell tower);
identifier being used in connection with the communication (such as a number or
- a time period in which a communication is made or
- the location of the person making or receiving the
The selection of a combination of attributes in each particular case
would involve a number of considerations, including the extent to which:
telecommunications provider had the ability to intercept the chosen attributes;
(singly or in combination) were sufficiently precise to give a high degree of
certainty communications of interest are accessed; and
components of a communication could be excluded on the basis they were likely
to be irrelevant.
In ASIO's view the approach of 'attribute-based interception':
...would allow agencies to filter and limit the communications
they intercept more efficiently, helping to minimise the collection of
extraneous information. With this more specific method of targeting the
telecommunications of interest, the more certain we can be that we are excluding
from incidental interception the communications of persons who are not of
interest and whose privacy should be protected.
In its 2013 report, the PJCIS observed that advancements in
telecommunications technology were diminishing the effectiveness of the current
interception framework. As a result, the PJCIS recommended that the
interception of communications should be conducted on the basis of specific
attributes of communications as a means of 'arresting the decline of
interception capability, while also offering additional privacy protections by
better targeting communications which are of particular relevance to the
serious crime or national security threat which is being investigated'.
Submitters to this
inquiry cited the PJCIS's recommendation of a single warrant regime and
suggested that the introduction of such a regime would be a means by which
telecommunications interception legislation could be simplified and also
respond to advancements in technology. The ACC and AFP also expressed support for
a single attribute-based interception regime.
How would it work?
The department explained how it anticipated 'attribute-based'
interception would apply in practice. A warrant would still need to be issued
to authorise access to a particular person's communications but, according to
the department, that 'attribute-based' warrant:
...would describe the communications that the service provider
is to access and provide to the agency by using a combination of technical
features or 'attributes'—rather than just a service or device identifier. Those
attributes could include a specific account, a time of day, a geographic
location or a technical feature of the communication.
The department explained that, in its view, attribute-based interception
would enable warrants to be more targeted and would also minimise the lawful
collection of irrelevant communications.
Concerns raised in relation to attribute-based interception
Although there was wide-spread support for the introduction of an
attribute-based interception warrant regime throughout the law enforcement
community, some concern was expressed by other stakeholders.
The Law Council advised that its reservations in relation to
attribute-based interception are based on the view that 'attribute-based' has
not been sufficiently defined to allow the 'true privacy implications'
associated with such a model to be assessed.
In raising its objections, the Law Council noted the challenges that
'existing and emerging telecommunications technologies pose for agencies attempting
to accurately identify the communications they intend to intercept or access',
and went on to express general support for:
...efforts to develop a warrant regime that focuses on better
targeting the characteristics of a communication and enables it to be isolated
from communications that are not of interest. However, the Law Council is keen
to ensure this does not occur at the expense of specific provisions designed to
ensure that each particular device or service to be intercepted or
communication to be accessed is clearly identified and shown to be justifiable
and necessary, and that it occurs in a manner that has the least intrusive
impact on individual rights and privacy.
The department explained to the committee that a single attribute-based
warrant would enable more targeted interception and, therefore, provide a
higher level of privacy protection. To demonstrate this, the department noted
how the current framework provides for a law enforcement agency to intercept a
device without any approach to targeting the kind of information wanted:
[For example] [a]t the moment, a service warrant would allow
you to collect against a particular service. If it is Joe Bloggs's smart phone,
that actually is the service, and everything that sits on that smart phone—every
bit of content, whether it be Candy Crush, Skype or their email—that service is
all of that, and the warrant does not have the specificity at the moment to
say, "Actually, we don't want their livestreaming of the cricket; we just
want the particular communication".
The problem at the moment is that the warrant is quite broad
in its approach, and what we want to do is have much better specificity. It may
be that they will collect the voice, the email and the livestream of the
cricket, but we want to be able to identify those as attributes of the whole
communication channel rather than just saying, "Give it all to us, and
we'll decipher it later".
In expressing support for the introduction of a single attribute-based
warrant regime both ASIO and the ACC acknowledged the need to ensure the
maintenance of 'the proportionality thresholds and accountability requirements...to
deliver public confidence and assurance regarding the use of these powers'
in any new regime.
Senator Scott Ludlam
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