Fighting Crime Online

 I rise to speak on the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2020. Internet connected devices are increasingly at the centre of our daily lives and never more so than now, in the era of COVID-19. Whether you’re the Prime Minister videoconferencing his national cabinet colleagues, a young person paying for lunch through their digital wallet or an Australian meeting their grandchild for the first time via Zoom, today digital devices are a part of everything that we do. However, that is just as much the case for criminals as it is for the rest of us. Digital connectivity has made it easier than ever before for criminals to communicate with one another, to share resources and knowledge and to prey on Australian families and businesses.

The Morrison government is committed to stamping out this kind of criminal activity. We are making the nation’s largest ever investment in cybersecurity through the $1.7 billion Cyber Security Strategy. This includes $1.4 billion over the next decade to enhance the cybersecurity capabilities and assistance provided to Australians through the Australian Signals Directorate and the Australian Cyber Security Centre.

In recent months I’ve seen firsthand the government’s commitment to protecting Australians online. Many people are not aware that in my electorate of Fisher, with the support of the federal government, we are in fact leading the way in the fight against complex and ever-growing cybercrime through local charity IDCARE. IDCARE was established by the federal government in 2014. It’s based in Caloundra, in my electorate, and it has directly supported more than 200,000 Australians, helping reverse the impacts of cybercrimes from identity theft to the hacking of personal devices. IDCARE’s services range from brief telephone consultations to complex advocacy and technical assistance, ranging across weeks and, in fact, months of support. They’ve developed a suite of more than a thousand response plans for the more frequently encountered crimes, and there in Caloundra is the only place in the world you’ll find specialist identity and cybersecurity case managers. Once again, Fisher is leading the way in dealing with this sort of scourge in our society.

IDCARE’s managing director, David Lacey, tells me that demand for their services has increased fourfold since 2015, with hundreds of people on the Sunshine Coast alone seeking support. Indeed, nationwide, a cybercrime is reported to the ACSC, the Australian Cyber Security Centre, every 10 minutes. Yet we know that the majority of incidents still go unreported. The ACCC’s Targeting scams report found that in 2019 alone Australians lost more than $634 million to these online crimes. I have to say: it makes my blood absolutely boil to see these crooks trying to steal money from hardworking and often retired Australians.

When I recently visited IDCARE, I met a number of their clients. They were ordinary Australians like you and me, Deputy Speaker Freelander—well, perhaps not like you and me, because we’re not retired! These local retirees were looking for investments that would guarantee their financial security after a lifetime of hard work, and they are now left with nothing. Local business owners trying to keep their staff employed and their customers served through the worst economic and health crises in a century have now been devastated by blackmail and extortion. That’s why I was proud to join the once Minister for Home Affairs, the now defence minister, at IDCARE earlier this year to announce that the Morrison government would provide the not-for-profit with additional funding of $6.1 million over the next four years to provide their specialist services to a further 54,000 Australians. This funding is going to help IDCARE to help tens of thousands more Australians to protect themselves online and to pick up the pieces when, sadly, things go so wrong.

Scams, cybercrimes and identity crimes impact every one of us, and no-one is entirely safe. I’m sure we’ve all experienced those fake calls purporting to be from the tax office, Amazon or Telstra, or the ads for products that are too good to be true, and every year these scams just seem to get more and more sophisticated. However, unfortunately, these scams are not the worst of online crime. Child abuse, organised crime, terrorism, drug and human trafficking, large-scale fraud, illegal weapons trading and even assassinations are contracted, planned, funded and paid for on the dark web. Sadly and regrettably, these things are only getting worse.

Last year the AFP identified a 163 per cent increase in the amount of child abuse material being downloaded on the dark web in 2020 compared to the previous year—a 163 per cent increase! This is judged to represent less than half the material that is in fact available. The AFP is aware that in 2018 more than 10,000 secure and encrypted specialist handsets were being used by Australian criminals to send secure communications. Currently, the AFP and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission are able to deploy electronic surveillance for aspects of communications traffic, content data and telecommunications data. However, they can only do so in gathering evidence of specific criminal offences and in prosecuting known individuals. However, with the increasing sophistication of the tools available to criminals, it is becoming impractical in all too many cases to identify offenders without deploying electronic surveillance proactively.

Today’s criminals use virtual private networks to conceal their location and encrypted physical handsets like Encrochat and Ciphr to operate on a closed, anonymous network. They use bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to make untraceable purchases and transfers of funds, and they conceal their identities behind random usernames and layers of anonymous accounts. The websites criminals use support their activities by their intentional avoidance of collecting any user information that law enforcement could use to identify a suspect for further investigation. In these circumstances, it can be nigh on impossible to track down an individual user or computer in order to deploy the powers available to them, even as law enforcement can observe a serious crime being committed.

The powers available to law enforcement need to keep pace with the increasing sophistication of crime online, and that is what this bill delivers. Firstly, the bill will get to the heart of this issue by giving the AFP and the ACIC the power to collect intelligence online concerning the activity of unidentified individuals and criminal groups by allowing access to the computers being used to facilitate serious criminal activity. Accessing these computers is often the only practical way to identify who the criminals are in order to investigate and disrupt their offences. We cannot allow a situation to continue where law enforcement can see serious crimes being committed but can do nothing to identify the perpetrators simply because they do not already know who those perpetrators are.

Secondly, this bill would give law enforcement, with the proper warrant, the power to take control of a suspected criminal’s account in order to gather evidence about their activities and those of their associates. Once an alleged offender has been identified, the opaque nature of the websites that they use in planning and executing their crimes, and the anonymity of cryptocurrencies, can mean that the only place evidence is recorded is in the alleged offender’s own accounts. As it stands, those accounts are only accessible to the AFP if the accused gives them access. Well, that’s not going to happen!

With the right oversight from the Commonwealth Ombudsman, this power will ensure that Australian law enforcement doesn’t need an alleged offender’s permission to investigate their own crimes.

Finally, the bill will introduce a data disruption warrant to enable the AFP and the ACIC to take the fight right to the criminals and stop them in the act. The uniquely live and dynamic nature of the online environment means that, at times, law enforcement officers can see serious crimes, such as the dissemination of child abuse material, being or about to be committed in real time. At present, there is little or nothing an officer can do to prevent these crimes from proceeding. However, under this bill, the AFP and the ACIC would be able to apply for a data disruption warrant. This would give them the ability to disrupt data held on computers by deleting it, adding to it or modifying it such that it can no longer be used to commit a crime. Australians are well aware of the devastating impact that cybercriminals can have on their legitimate activities through modifying or deleting their data. This bill would rebalance the scales and give us the power to disrupt the activities of serious criminals in our turn and use their tools against them.

We’ve seen in recent months what a devastating impact such a reversal can have on organised crime. When law enforcement have the powers they need to use cutting-edge online tools themselves against the criminals, the results can be explosive. We will have read the extensive coverage in the media of Operation Ironside, the extremely sophisticated international effort which saw hundreds of Australian organised criminals planning their crimes on an online platform which was, in fact, operated by the US FBI. The outcomes delivered by the AFP as part of this operation are nothing short of incredible—nearly $50 million seized, 250 of the most serious offenders charged, 139 firearms recovered, almost five tonnes of narcotics removed from the streets and 20 threats to kill averted. The operation found alleged links between Australian criminals with the Asian crime syndicates, Albanian organised crime gangs and even the Italian Mafia. These are remarkable outcomes, and this one operation has already made Australia a materially safer place. With the bill before the House we have the opportunity to build more such operations and make them an important part of the law enforcement arsenal in this country.

I’d like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to both the former Minister for Home Affairs, the Minister for Defence, who I know put a lot of work into developing this bill before the House, and the current Minister for Home Affairs, who is in the chamber today. I’d like to congratulate them both for their work not just in this chamber—people have no idea of the sacrifices that that role entails, the intrusions on their own privacy, the incredible demands on their family lives and their own personal lives. It is, quite frankly, while probably one of the best portfolios in government, one of the most onerous. I dip my lid to the minister in the chamber today for the great work she is doing in her portfolio.

Australian law enforcement officers are resourceful, skilled and creative. When we give them the tools they need, they can be devastatingly effective against even the most sophisticated criminals. The bill before us levels the playing field. It gives the AFP the opportunity to turn the tables and use the underworld’s own technologies and techniques against them to make Australia a safer place for all of us. I commend the bill to the House.