18 October 2022

ACT Integrity Commission to get phone-tap powers

| Lottie Twyford
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The ACT Integrity Commission might soon have the power to tap phones. Photo: Supplied.

The ACT’s Integrity Commissioner doesn’t currently have the power to intercept or ‘tap’ phone calls, but that’s about to change.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr has already written to the Commonwealth Attorney-General to kickstart a lengthy process that will eventually allow the Integrity Commission to acquire telecommunications data.

There’s no clear timeline as to when this might happen.

Phone-tap, or telecommunications interception powers, have been at the top of Integrity Commissioner Michael Adams KC’s wishlist for years.

“We are using conventional tools, but I need [telecommunication interception powers] as soon as I can get them,” he said.

He made similar comments in last year’s estimates hearings.

Michael Adams

ACT Integrity Commissioner Michael Adams told budget estimates hearing in August he needed phone-tap powers for ongoing investigations. Photo: IPCC.

Mr Adams explained that phone-tap powers would be used when you had good reason to believe people were communicating about relevant matters.

“You are just completely excluded from vision of those communications without TI [telephone intercept powers]; there is just no other way to do it,” he said.

“It is a source of evidence I cannot get my hands on. The AFP does this every day.”

Mr Adams said the Australian Federal Police told Mr Adams that they had material that might be of interest, but the commission was not allowed to access it due to Commonwealth law.

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In estimates hearings in late August, Mr Adams said he was still awaiting a meeting with Mr Barr.

A spokesperson for the government confirmed this meeting has now taken place but the process of getting the phone-tap powers is lengthy.

The Commonwealth Government must first declare the Commission a Criminal Law Enforcement Agency (CLEA) under its Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act.

Once declared, the commission will have “additional powers to investigate allegations of serious corrupt conduct and systemic corrupt conduct”, an ACT Government spokesperson said.

The commission will also be able to request telecommunication data to analyse and subsequently issue examination summons, search warrants, or surveillance device warrants.

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Mr Barr has requested an interim declaration so the commission could be granted these powers while the Territory government considers an appropriate legislative framework for it to be able to access these powers on a permanent basis.

It’s expected this will take place in a statutory review process beginning in December this year.

“The Legislative Assembly deliberately structured the Integrity Commission Act to prohibit the use of coercive and covert powers during a preliminary inquiry, recognising the impact on human rights,” the spokesperson said.

“The ACT Government takes its responsibilities under the Human Rights Act seriously and understands the impacts to the right to privacy that are associated with [these] powers and warrants.”

Elizabeth Lee

Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee is also seeking to grant the Integrity Commission telecommunications interception powers. Photo: Region.

Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee will present a bill to the ACT Legislative Assembly this week to give the watchdog telecommunication interception powers.

Ms Lee said the ACT and Tasmania are the only jurisdictions where the integrity body does not have the legal authority to intercept telecommunications.

“Integrity in government is of utmost importance and it is disappointing the ACT remains one of the only jurisdictions where the integrity body does not have this power,” Ms Lee said.

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Merc600, ask away, there are no secrets in the basic information. The old movie scenario you described assumed analogue signals, so putting a tap on the line simply copied the same wavy signals, clear voice. Mobile phones this century use packetised digital signals, mildly encrypted against signal eavesdropping. However, those digital packets pass through computers (aka telephone exchanges) so can be copied as they pass, as surely as if you were writing any other file type to disc.

In the normal course it is only metadata, who called whom, when and for how long, that is held (just like internet data flows through your ISP) but obviously easy to open a ‘side-gate’ to write the entire call (digital data) to disc on an authorised request, then listen to the call at leisure; no new equipment or men in vans required. You see reference to this in other ICAC hearings and some police operations.

Just a small techo point, that I guess a host of Rioters would know about , and thats this tapping a mobile phone. ?

Have watched many a old movie where the good guys sneak into the office/home backyard at midnight, and slap some alligator clips onto the phone lines , and then the tape recorders whirl into action, and then the badies get sprung.

But today ?
I know our American cousins have a organisation called NSA, which can pick up mobile phones, but do we?

Or shouldn’t I be asking that.

I believe these days the phone company does it all, there’s an automated way to get recordings done. Like a vending machine of phone taps.
Then there are also technical assistance requests where if you have data on someone you need to be able to decrypt that and hand it over, so rather than trying to decrypt something during transfer or phone call, police or agencies can just ask whoever has info to give it over.

The result is lots of apps that do end to end encryption, one just has to watch out that the FBI/NSA aren’t running the encryption app as an entrapment network.

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