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More telephone taps in Australia than the United States.

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• • • • NEWS RELEASE • • • • NEWS RELEASE • • • • NEWS RELEASE • • • •

15 September 2002


The Shadow Minister for Justice and Customs, Daryl Melham, today called for stronger external scrutiny of telephone tapping and covert surveillance activities by Australian law enforcement agencies.

“It is a striking fact that Australian law enforcement agencies are resorting to telecommunications interception much more than their American counterparts”, Mr Melham said. “They are tapping the telephones of Australian citizens at more than 20 times the rate in the United States.”

“In 2000-01, 2,157 telecommunications interception warrants were issued to Australian law enforcement agencies under the Telecommunications (Interception) Act 1979. In calendar year 2001, US federal and state judges issued only 1,491 wiretap authorisations for law enforcement purposes. Australian interception activity also exceeded that in the US in 2000.”

“Given that Australia’s population is 19.6 million while the United States has more than 284 million people, this amounts to a per capita rate of telephone interception in Australia more than 20 times that in the United States.”

“Telecommunications interception is a vital weapon in the fight against crime. Criminals use increasingly sophisticated telecommunications services and interception is of considerable value in the investigation of serious crimes.”

“That said, the tremendous growth of telephone tapping raises very important privacy issues and calls into question the adequacy of current external oversight arrangements. Telephone interception in Australia has increased exponentially. The number of warrants issued each year has increased nearly ninefold since 1988-89 - the first year official statistics were published.”

“The most dramatic rise has taken place over the past four reported years with the number of warrants rising from 675 in 1997-98 to 2,157 in 2000-01 - more than a threefold increase. Federal and State law enforcement agencies spent more than $17 million on interception in 2000-2001.”

“This massive increase in telephone tapping has continued in spite of the introduction of so-called ‘named person’ warrants that allow interception of more than one telecommunications service.”

“Applications for interception warrants are almost automatically approved by Members of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and Federal Court and Family Court Judges. In 2000-01, only 7 of 2,164 applications were refused or withdrawn. Very few other areas of public administration would claim an error rate of a mere 0.3 percent.”

“In 2000-01, Australian law enforcement agencies made 1,033 arrests and obtained 623 convictions which were reliant on telecommunications interception. In 2001, US law enforcement agencies made 3,683 arrests and secured 732 convictions with one third fewer wiretaps.”

“Between 1996 and 2001, US law enforcement made, on average, 3.31 arrests and secured 1.55 convictions for each wiretap authorisation. From 1995/96 to 2000/01, Australian agencies secured only 0.63 arrests and 0.46 convictions for each telecommunications interception warrant.”

“Despite much higher usage of telecommunications interception, Australian law enforcement agencies appear less successful than their US counterparts in using this technology to put criminals behinds bars.”

Mr Melham noted that the Commonwealth Ombudsman has the function of inspecting the telecommunications interception records of the Australian Federal Police and the National Crime Authority. A similar function is performed in relation to State police and law enforcement agencies by the Ombudsman for each jurisdiction.

“While the reports of the inspecting authorities to date indicate a high level of compliance with relevant legislation, the tremendous growth of interception calls into question the adequacy of the existing accountability regime.”

“In this regard, it is significant that last year the Commonwealth Ombudsman employed only two staff for approximately two months of each year to inspect relevant AFP and NCA records.”

“These two staff working part time were expected to inspect the records relating to 598 AFP warrants and 284 NCA warrants, each warrant in force for an average of 72 and 42 days respectively generating thousands of pages of information. It is highly questionable whether this is an adequate level of external supervision for this highly intrusive surveillance activity.”

“There is urgent need to strengthen the resources available for external scrutiny of telephone interception activities and more broadly to provide more effective scrutiny of other forms of intrusive surveillance.”

“In contrast to the Ombudsman’s specific audit role under the Telecommunications (Interception) Act, no similar external accountability arrangements exist for the use of listening devices by the AFP or the NCA. The installation and use of listening devices is no less intrusive than telecommunications interception. There is a strong case for comprehensive accountability arrangements that would encompass the full range of intrusive powers employed by Commonwealth law enforcement agencies.”

“Consideration should be given to the establishment of a new external oversight agency similar to the United Kingdom’s Chief Surveillance Commissioner to oversee telephone interception, use of listening devices and other surveillance by Commonwealth law enforcement agencies.”

“While telecommunications interception and other intrusive surveillance techniques are a powerful crime-fighting weapons, they involve great intrusions into personal privacy. They must be subject to strong external scrutiny to ensure that they are used sparingly and not abused.”

Contact: Philip Dorling 0416 203 058