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Thursday, 10 November 2022
Page: 2822


Ms ROWLAND (GreenwayMinister for Communications) (09:06): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

From the computers we work on to the phones in our pockets, telecommunications power some of the most important aspects of life in Australia. As a result, law enforcement and a range of other functions that go towards securing the national interest rely on the cooperation of telecommunications companies.

The Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Information Disclosure, National Interest and Other Measures) Bill 2022is targeted not only to improve the operation and transparency of the relationship between law enforcement and telcos but, crucially, to save lives.

A New South Wales deputy state coroner recently completed a coronial inquest into the sad disappearance of a New South Wales resident. Upon completion of the inquest, I received correspondence on behalf of the coroner recommending urgent reform to section 287 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 (the act). Three weeks after that correspondence, I am bringing legislation to the parliament to address this issue raised by Her Honour.

I regret to advise the parliament that this is not the first time that this issue has been raised. In 2020, in an inquest into the death of a New South Wales resident, Her Honour Teresa O'Sullivan had first raised that disclosure of telecommunications data to save missing people had an unrealistic bar.

The bill first and foremost responds directly to these recommendations to better protect the safety and wellbeing of Australians in danger.

Second, the bill increases accountability and transparency through enhanced record-keeping requirements for disclosures.

Finally, the bill implements minor technical improvements to support the function of the act.

Repealing 'imminent'

Currently, law enforcement is unduly obstructed in locating missing persons because telecommunications companies can only help triangulate the location of a person, if a threat to a person's life or health is 'serious and imminent'. The bill removes the requirement that the threat be imminent.

In both the recent inquest into the disappearance of the New South Wales resident I referred to earlier, and the 2020 Inquest into the death of Thomas Hunt, law enforcement could justify a clear, serious risk to a person's life. Yet the inability of law enforcement, with the information available, to characterise the threat as imminent in those matters contributed to two lives being lost. Both inquests, as well as a report from the Australian Law Reform Commission, stress the urgent repeal of the 'imminent' qualifier.

IPND d isclosures

In the same vein of public safety, the bill enhances emergency disclosures from the Integrated Public Number Database (known as the IPND)—a database of all Australian phone numbers and associated names and addresses.

Currently, if the number calling triple 0 is unlisted, the IPND manager is prohibited from disclosing the associated names and addresses to emergency call persons even when that information is necessary to provide someone with life-saving emergency services. Given that 95 per cent of the 72 million active numbers in Australia are unlisted with all mobile numbers unlisted by default, the IPND manager is obstructed from helping the vast majority of Australians.

This bill amends the act so that the IPND manager can disclose information about a subscriber to the triple 0 emergency call person in connection with a call to triple 0. This will facilitate an emergency response, assisting our emergency services to do what they need to, to save lives.

Responding to natural disasters

There are longstanding provisions in the act that allow telecommunications providers to give help to law enforcement and national security agencies, in response to requests for reasonable and necessary assistance. In doing so, providers are entitled to compensation on a 'no profit, no loss' basis, and are not liable for damages in relation to an act done or omitted in good faith in compliance with a request. As part of the National Emergency Declaration Act 2020, these provisions were broadened to allow telecommunications companies to provide reasonable and necessary assistance to emergency service organisations. However, that act unintentionally did not include protections for telecommunications companies acting in good faith from liability for damages. This bill corrects that error.

Record - keeping requirements

Following recommendations from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, the bill improves the record-keeping requirements on the telecommunications industry to include more details about the authorisation of disclosures under the act. Better record keeping enhances accountability and transparency of the handling of personal data.

Industry consultation

Major telecommunications providers and the Communications Alliance have been consulted on the bill with amendments made in response to their requests. There was some concern that time would be needed to implement IT changes for the enhanced disclosure record keeping—consequently this part of the bill has a six-month delayed commencement. Additionally, industry was concerned about who would be best placed to decide whether a threat to health or safety was 'serious'. Consequently, the explanatory memorandum makes very clear that telecommunications companies would be relying on the representations of law enforcement agencies and emergency service organisations when making this judgement.

Conclusion

These proposed amendments minimise regulatory impact and provide benefit to industry, law enforcement agencies, and emergency service organisations. More importantly, I believe the proposed amendments will contribute to saving lives.

I commend the bill to the House.