ASIO insulted by statements it could abuse data retention powers

ASIO's director-general has restated that the organisation is not looking for new powers around data retention.

David Irvine, director-general at ASIO, has said it is insulting to think ASIO staff would abuse powers given to it around data retention.

“Most ASIO officers would find it frankly insulting to think that an organisation which prides itself on acting in accordance with the law and very, very heavy accountability processes would allow itself to deviate into unwarranted intrusions into privacy,” Irvine told Background Briefing yesterday.

Data retention: Who wants it, who doesn’t and why

“And we don’t have the time to do that – we have no need to do it. Why would we do it?...

“Let’s be realistic. ASIO simply doesn’t have the resources, the desire or the need to conduct prurient enquiries into any individual Australian. We only conduct inquiries with cause.”

Irvine reiterated to the program that the intelligence organisation did not want new powers and that data retention proposals would give it powers it already had.

He also said the proposals do not impinge on people’s privacy.

“We are talking about the modernisation of an interception regime. It does not mean extensive new powers. It means the ability to do what we could do 15 years ago and even 10 years and even five years ago that we are gradually losing the ability to do unless the law better accommodates the interception capability with the march of modern technology,” Irvine said.

Irvine also told the program that Australia has not experienced any terrorist attacks due to ASIO stopping them before they occurred, partly by exercising data retention powers.

However, Irvine said changing technology has meant instead of intercepting one telephone – a landline – the communications landscape today means ASIO needs to intercept several communications devices, which is making their job more difficult.

“We have not had near misses – we’ve had misses. In recent years there have been instances where devices have been used ... that we didn’t know about and we have missed information,” he said.

For example, Irvine said someone may have up to 10 different mobile handsets and a similar number of different sim cards.

Intercepting people with multiple devices and sim cards is not currently covered in a “convenient way”, Irvine said.

Recently Greens senator Scott Ludlam said other proposals currently being examined by the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security were also “creepy”, such as “the ability of intelligence agencies to commit crimes and then be forgiven for them behind the scenes”.

Irvine defended the proposals, stating ASIO officers or sources are sometimes required to penetrate terrorist groups and being part of that group would mean they are breaking the law and could be charged.

“What I would like to see is a removal of that ambiguity in those sorts of situations,” he said.

While Attorney-General Nicola Roxon has consistently stated she has not yet made up her mind about whether the data retention proposals should be implemented, she has said police investigations would be unable to create a picture of criminal activity without data retention laws.

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