Victorian bill to boost police hacking powers

Counter-terrorism bill expands covert search warrants to include remote access to computer systems

Police in Victoria will be able to remotely hack into computer systems used by terror suspects under a bill introduced into parliament by the state government.

Victoria's attorney-general, Martin Pakula, this week introduced the Terrorism (Community Protection) Amendment Bill 2015 in the Legislative Assembly.

In addition to extending the sunset dates that currently apply to the Terrorism (Community Protection) Act 2003 (TCPA) until December 2021, the legislation implements a number of the recommendations made in a review of the state's counter-terrorism legislation.

The Victorian Review of Counter Terrorism Legislation was tabled in 2014. Among the recommendations of the report, authored by a panel headed by former County Court judge David Jones, were that the TCPA's provisions for covert search warrants be extended to include remote access of computer systems.

The TCPA currently allows a police officer to apply to a Supreme Court judge for a covert search warrant in a number of circumstances, such reasonably believing that an act of terrorism is likely to be committed or that terrorism-linked activity has been conducted within premises that are the subject of the warrant.

A previous amendment to the TCPA expanded the circumstances under which an officer could apply for a warrant to include suspicions of terrorist activity generally, not a particular and specific act, the David Jones review noted.

Applications for warrants under the TCPA are held in camera.

The warrants can currently authorise the search of a particular place or vehicle (including entry by force or by impersonating another person). Officers can search and seize items and copy or seize data (including by using electronic equipment on the premises).

During the David Jones review, Victoria Police pushed for a number of amendments to the TCPA, including the introduction of provisions that would allow the remote hacking of a computer system.

The review recommended that legislation should be introduced to give police the unambiguous power to remotely access a computer system as part of a covert search warrant, citing as a potential model Commonwealth legislation authorising ASIO to hack into computer systems.

"This provision should allow the Supreme Court to issue a search warrant where it is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for suspecting or believing that access to data held on a particular computer, or on a computer within a particular address, would substantially assist in the collection of evidence or intelligence necessary to prevent a terrorist act or suspected terrorist act from occurring, or would assist in the response to or the investigation of such an act or suspected act," the review stated.

The bill currently before the Victorian parliament would allow police to obtain a warrant authorising them "to operate, by way of remote entry, any electronic equipment that is on the premises [named in a warrant] and copy, print or otherwise record information held in, or accessible from, that equipment".

The bill also modifies a number of other provisions of the TCPA, including introducing a consistent definition of vehicle and changes to Preventative Detention Orders.

"Counter terrorism legislation in Australia exists as part of a nationally agreed framework and this bill follows reviews at both the state and national level and will be a first stage in further refinement of these powers," Pakula said in a statement.

"The counter terrorism legislation complements the Government’s broader approach to social cohesion and community resilience and underscores the need to work closely with local communities to understand and address violent extremism."

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