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Thursday, 27 May 2004
Page: 29309


Mr RUDDOCK (Attorney-General) (9:10 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill amends the Telecommunications (Interception) Act 1979.

These amendments address the practical implications of modern technology on access to communications by law enforcement and regulatory agencies.

The bill will exclude access to stored communications from the current prohibition against interception of communications.

In practical terms, the amendments will limit the existing prohibition against interception to real-time transit of communications.

Communications that have been stored on equipment will be excluded from the scope of the act.

These measures represent immediate and practical steps to address the operational issues faced by our law enforcement and regulatory agencies.

However, the amendments also recognise the need for a more comprehensive review of access to stored communications and the contemporary relevance of Australia's interception regime.

That is why the amendments will cease to have effect 12 months after their commencement.

The government recognises that a broader review of access to modern means of communication is required.

That is why I have asked my department to conduct a comprehensive review of the Telecommunications (Interception) Act and to report back to me before the expiration of these amendments.

The need for a more comprehensive review should not preclude the enactment of amendments to addressing the increasingly significant operational concerns created by the act's current application.

These amendments appropriately respond to the immediate difficulties posed by the breadth of the existing interception regime, while recognising the need to revisit this issue in greater detail.

The government has on two previous occasions, in 2002 and 2004, sought to legislate to clarify the application of the Interception Act to stored communications.

On both occasions, the government has found it necessary to withdraw the amendments.

Most recently, the government withdrew the amendments following a recommendation of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee.

The committee, after considering the proposed amendments in relation to stored communications, recommended that they be deferred pending resolution of differing interpretations of the current operation of the interception regime.

That resolution has now been achieved. Thus this bill adequately addresses the operational concerns raised by the Australian Federal Police in relation to access to stored communications.

As I have previously said, I have agreed that my department conduct a broader review of the telecommunications interception regime.

The review will likely focus on access to electronic communications.

In the meantime, it is important that any lack of clarity in applying the Interception Act to stored communications be resolved.

The measures in the bill are an urgent but temporary solution to the operational difficulties experienced by law enforcement agencies.

When the act was drafted almost 25 years ago, the Australian telecommunications systems consisted largely of land based services carrying live telephone conversations.

The act was therefore built around a core concept of communications passing over a telecommunications system.

While this concept is technologically neutral, its application has proven more difficult to modern communications services—which I am sure you are familiar with, Mr Speaker—such as voice mail, email and SMS messaging. I must say that I am familiar with it but not fully up on it.

These amendments do not, however, allow unregulated monitoring of telecommunications services such as email, voice mail and SMS which are in widespread use in the community.

Rather, the amendments recognise that such communications become stored and should fall outside the protections originally designed for more immediate voice telephony at some point.

Access to stored communications will continue to require an appropriate form of lawful access such as consent, a search warrant or a right of access to communications or storage equipment.

The amendments will allow law enforcement and regulatory agencies expeditious access to stored communications in the performance of their functions.

The amendments will also facilitate measures to preserve the security of information systems.

The amendments also ensure that new technologies that may involve storage, but which are in reality analogous to standard voice telephony, are protected in the same way as normal voice calls.

In particular, the amendments specifically exclude storage in the course of transmission by voice over Internet protocol and other highly transitory storage that is integral to the carriage of a communication.

This ensures that these communications, although technically stored for a fraction of a second, remain protected as live communications.

The government is committed to ensuring that the interception regime keeps pace with technological developments.

Modern means of technology are converging with more traditional data storage.

These amendments address the operational impacts of that convergence, while foreshadowing the need for further consideration of this issue.

I commend this bill to the House and table an explanatory memorandum.


The SPEAKER —I thank the Attorney-General for his unfounded vote of confidence in my electronic communications skills. Were it not for my children, he would find me electronically illiterate. In the absence of an SMS message to send to him, I call the member for Lilley to adjourn the debate.

Debate (on motion by Mr Swan) adjourned.