Australia’s Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has warned politicians to “watch out”, after confirming their encrypted text messages on platforms such as WhatsApp and Signal could be tapped by the federal government’s new integrity commission.
- Proposed integrity commission could tap encrypted messages of politicians and raid commonwealth premises
- The Opposition has raised concerns the commission will become an attractive intelligence target for foreign spies
- However, the government insists any information collected by the body would be securely stored
Under proposed legislation introduced to parliament last week, the National Anti-Corruption Commission would have the powers to intercept telecommunications and use surveillance devices.
Mr Dreyfus has told the ABC’s Insiders program that will include the ability to tap the phones of politicians, even if they are messaging on encrypted apps such as WhatsApp and Signal.
“I think everyone needs to watch out,” he said.
“We don’t want corrupt activity infecting our system of government. That’s why we are creating, at long last, an anti-corruption commission for Australia.”
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However, he stressed, any such moves would need legal authority.
“Interception is available, and the commission will have the same powers available to it, subject to warrant, that the police and our intelligence agencies have and that’s appropriate,” he said.
The body will also have the power to raid Commonwealth premises — such as the Defence or Home Affairs departments — without a warrant.
Shadow Cyber Security Minister James Paterson said while he supported the idea of the corruption body, he was concerned about any potential security consequences.
“That will put in its possession very sensitive and potentially classified information and that will make it a very attractive intelligence collection target for foreign intelligence services,” he told Sky News.
“If that’s the case, they must put in place the most robust protections possible.
“Frankly, I would rather they don’t hold any sensitive information like that at all, but if they have to, then it must come with the most-strong protections possible to ensure it is not picked off.”
However, Mr Dreyfus insisted that any sensitive information gathered by the body would be “very carefully stored”.
“There’s a whole set of provisions in the bill,” he said.
“This is the distinction that you have to make for a national anti-corruption commission. It’s potentially going to be dealing with national security information. That’s not something, generally speaking, that state and territory anti-corruption commissions have to worry about.
“This commission will have to perhaps worry about that, and there are special provisions to deal with it.”
Anti-corruption commission won’t be an exercise in political payback, says Dreyfus
The attorney-general also insisted that the anti-corruption commission would not be an exercise in “political payback”, after being asked whether the Coalition’s notorious sports-rorts program was “corrupt”.
An earlier auditor-general’s report found that marginal and targeted seats had been favoured to receive funding through the $100 million Community Sports Infrastructure Grant program in the lead-up to the 2019 election.
It was revealed that then-sports minister Bridget McKenzie’s office colour-coded the nearly 2,000 grant applications according to the party that held the electorate.
Mr Dreyfus was asked whether government pork-barrelling would be covered by the commission, given Mr Dreyfus had previously described the scandal as “government corruption beyond question”.
“I thought the idea that a decision made in the prime minister’s office, when he had no power over the matter, with 51 coloured spreadsheets revealed by the auditor-general, that looked pretty corrupt to me,” he said.
“But it’s not going to be my decision. It’s going to be a matter for this independent commissioner to decide if someone refers a matter to her or him to decide.
“This is not an exercise in political payback. This is not a partisan operation.”
He also dismissed Shadow Attorney-General Julian Leeser’s claim that union officials would be shielded from the commission’s investigatory powers, saying it was “wrong”.
“Union officials are not excluded,” he said.
“Any third party who was seeking to adversely affect public decision-making in a corrupt way is going to be the subject of investigation by this commission.”