New surveillance powers aim to boost fight against terrorism

Spy agencies will be given new powers to access computers and monitor online communications amid growing fears about the terrorism threat posed by Australians fighting in the Middle East.

Attorney-General George Brandis told Parliament on Wednesday he would introduce legislation next month that includes allowing ASIO to use innocent third-party computers to effectively hack into a computer used by a suspect terrorist or criminal.

They would also be empowered to hook into a computer network on just one warrant, dramatically freeing up surveillance powers. Previously they needed separate warrants for individual computers.

The changes also appear to give the nation's satellite spies, the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation, power to use satellites to gather intelligence on citizens under ministerial authorisation.

The intelligence community has long called for the changes, arguing the failure of the law to keep pace with technology put hurdles in the way of investigations.

The changes were under consideration but have been given fresh impetus by revelations that some of an estimated 150 Australians involved with extremist groups have crossed from Syria into Iraq and are taking part in the bloodshed there.

The looming changes came as US Ambassador John Berry said the US had been ''caught napping on 9/11'' and urged Australia and the world to stay ''on guard'' against potential suspects returning from the Middle East.

The new laws will be based on recommendations by a parliamentary inquiry last year. Supported by Labor, they are certain to pass the Parliament.

Most significantly, the inquiry called for ASIO to be given the power to use a third-party computer as a back door to spy on a target computer, though it stressed there needed to be strict safeguards, including guarantees that the intrusion on the third party's privacy would be minimised.

Such a change could allow ASIO to access a computer belonging to an associate of a terrorism suspect and, for example, send an email that the suspect is more likely to open, believing it to be from a trusted source - a little like the tactics of some hackers.

The new laws would also change the definition of a computer to include multiple computers operating in a network, opening up the possibility of accessing information in a cloud and expanding the ability to snare traffic between computers.

Tobias Feakin, a cybersecurity expert at the Australian Strategic Police Institute, said the changes would update legislation that was ''well out of date''.

''This is not a wholesale piece of legislation that means every person's email is going to be read and monitored, it's simply not the case.''

He stressed the new powers needed safeguards and oversight. It was therefore ''a bit strange'' that the Abbott government had chosen to abolish the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor.

The story New surveillance powers aim to boost fight against terrorism first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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