Australian Spy Agency Reaches Out And Touches Self In Warrantless Wiretap Misfire

from the calls-are-coming-from-inside-the-house! dept

ASIO — Australia’s NSA — runs the tightest spying ship in the spying-ship-spying-on-spying-ships business. It’s all detailed in one tiny paragraph hidden 26 pages deep in an 100+ page Inspector General’s report. [pdf link]

“ASIO intercepted, without warrant, calls made from one of its own regional offices due to a technical error. The data was deleted and processes put in place to ensure it does not happen again.”

I’m not sure what tipped the spooks off. Maybe it was the range of the familiar voices (possibly their own, even!) heard during the transcription process. Or maybe it was the embarrassing moment where one ASIO agent admitted to the agent at the other end of the line that he was a “long-time listener” but a “first-time caller,” shortly before the feedback loop made the call too painful to continue.

The above screw-up didn’t violate the privacy of anyone but a few privacy-violators and the Inspector General readily notes that this sort of thing won’t be happening again. Presumably, future warrantless interception will be checked against the very short list of DO NOT SPY numbers, most of which should be readily apparent by their in-house extension numbers.

The report quickly moves on from this little embarrassment but failing to clarify whether it was the interception or the lack of a warrant that was the problem. A “we don’t spy on ourselves” policy would make sense but wouldn’t necessarily be a violation of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act. On the other hand, the warrant requirement for ASIO is basically an impediment no thicker than the ink applied by a rubber stamp — all that stands between what the agency wants to do and what it’s going to find a way to do anyway. As the laws governing ASIO’s surveillance stand now, a warrant is nothing more than a nice afterthought.

The Bill introduces the concept of a “delayed notification search warrant” — often referred to in the United States as a ‘no-knock warrant’ — which would allow Australian Federal Police to search premises without prior warning and “without having to produce the warrant at the time of entry and search”.

Maybe the warrant was still in transit, or maybe ASIO though the interception of its own calls fell under one of its other broad warrants, some of which could easily be interpreted as pertaining to every device connected to the Internet.

But these are this year’s laws and that is last year’s violation, so it still doesn’t add up. What it does do is throw some hazy light on an agency that thrives in the dark and just successfully ushered in a brave new world of domestic surveillance. This incident proves a valuable point about trust (namely: don’t) and answers an important rhetorical question: Who watches the watchers?

Clearly, the watchers do.


But only inadvertently.

And it won’t happen again.

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Comments on “Australian Spy Agency Reaches Out And Touches Self In Warrantless Wiretap Misfire”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Spy agencies spying? Whatever next, space agencies going into space

Spy agencies spying on entities they are not supposed to spy on. Most people would put “people not reasonably suspected of any crime” on the bold list, but employees of the major spy agencies hate the idea that there might exist information they don’t have a copy of, so they restrict their bold list to themselves and cooperating spy agencies from other powers (though the latter is mostly an in-name-only deal).

Anonymous Coward says:

Not Austrlia's NSA

ASIO is Australia’s equivalent of the British Security Service (MI5) – it has some police-like powers but its officers aren’t constables. They do counterespionage, counterterroism, etc., but actual arrests are usually made by the AFP or state police. They can hold people in custody, but that is legally different from a normal arrest.

The equivalent of the NSA or GCHQ is the Australian Signals Directorate.

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