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Wednesday, 26 November 1986
Page: 2793


Senator VIGOR(4.28) —I rise as a member of the Joint Select Committee on Telecommunications Interception to commend the report to the Senate. Senator Cooney has concentrated on some of the aspects of privacy which were also very important in my consideration of the brief that was given to the Committee, so I will not cover again the same areas except to say that I am convinced that if the system and proposals recommended by the report are put into effect the privacy of Australians will not be unduly affected. The Bill that was referred to our Committee was considered by the majority of the Committee, which comprised Australian Labor Party members and myself, an Australian Democrat, to be convoluted, confusing and vague in parts. It compounded the difficulties that were involved in trying to understand and apply the legislation effectively. It was because of that that we felt the Bill should be withdrawn and redrafted with a much clearer and simpler structure than that which resulted after various amendments had been added to the original already complex Bill.

The main differences between the Liberal members of the Committee and the rest of us seem to be in the area of whether we allow the States to manage their own interception of telephones. The main Committee felt that there would be much better control of interception if Telecom Australia were fully responsible for every interception and a body which we called a Telecommunications Interception Agency be established to manage all the interceptions for all the diverse bodies to which we were going to extend interception powers-the Australian Federal Police, which already has the powers, the National Crime Authority, which uses the AFP, various State and the Northern Territory police forces and the New South Wales Drug Crime Commission. We felt that any additions to this list should be handled by the Parliament and that if we were to extend the types of crime for which interception was permitted we would have to keep this to a bare minimum because otherwise it would be possible to distort totally the tapping process and it would become commonplace rather than a rare event in pursuing crime.

There was an enormous amount of discussion as to how much we should restrict tapping but eventually the majority of the Committee came to a definition which I commend to the Government. I hope that this will be incorporated in the new legislation. The Committee recommends that we extend from serious drug trafficking offences to murder, kidnapping and organised crime associated with a number of events which we believe would give a reasonable definition of organised crime. These events involve two or more offenders and substantial planning and organisation. The events are of the kind that ordinarily involve sophisticated methods and techniques; the crimes committed are ordinarily committed in conjunction with other offences of a like kind; and, lastly, involve kidnapping, murder and serious drug trafficking offences and associated financial transactions.

Because we believe that we should be able to use phone tapping not only to detect who has carried out a crime or investigate crimes that have been carried out, we also added to this list matters relating to conspiracy to commit the above offences on the basis that prevention is better than cure. This would seem to be a reasonable definition of the types of crime which could lead to legal telecommunications interception. Many people probably have the view that a vast amount of interception is going on. We received from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Australian Federal Police evidence that the total capacity of both those organisation's was less than 75 lines at any time that could be used to operate a legal tapping exercise. When we questioned further we found that the resources available at least to the Federal Police did not allow for the full capacity to be used and only approximately 15 lines were being tapped at any one time. This did not prevent Mr Wrigley from ASIO from warning anybody who wanted to keep a conversation from other people that they should assume that the telephone might be tapped. The reason for this is not legal phone tapping but illegal phone tapping.

We tried to investigate the prevalence of illegal phone tapping. We asked Telecom. It said that over the last year it had found 18 devices but this was not as a result of an intensive scan of the network but by accident during normal maintenance operations. Obviously, that is just the tip of the iceberg. The most serious problem is that there were very few prosecutions for illegal tapping. The reason basically is that tapping was carried out for domestic reasons or industrial espionage and it was difficult to prove. The suggestion that we made is that Telecom should have an audit process to ensure the security of the network. It cannot guarantee the security of the Telecom network. One of the recommendations of the Committee was that Telecom should be asked, as a matter of urgency, to check continuously the integrity of the network and detect illegal devices.

In the last minute available I will say that the communications being tapped are assumed to be voice communication which may be in a number of languages. The main cost of tapping exercises seemed to be in the interpretation, transcription and perhaps translation of the material. There are now many devices coming on to the market which transfer digital signals. Again, the legislation will allow these to be intercepted. This will eventually be a much more important area for tapping than voice communication because it will allow us to follow the money trails and hit at organised crime where it hurts most-in its coffers and in its treasury.

Question resolved in the affirmative.