Australia’s Attorney General Mark Dreyfus has warned politicians to “beware” after confirming their encrypted text messages on platforms such as WhatsApp and Signal could be intercepted by the federal government’s new integrity commission.
- Proposed integrity commission could tap encrypted messages from politicians and attack Commonwealth premises
- The opposition has expressed concern that the commission will become an attractive intelligence target for foreign spies
- However, the government insists that any information collected by the body will be kept secure
According to proposed legislation introduced to Parliament last week, the National Anti-Corruption Commission would have powers to intercept telecommunications and use surveillance equipment.
Sir. Dreyfus has told the ABC’s Insiders program that will include the ability to tap politicians’ phones even if they send messages on encrypted apps such as WhatsApp and Signal.
“I think everyone needs to be careful,” he said.
“We don’t want corrupt activities to infect our system of government. That’s why we’re creating, long overdue, an anti-corruption commission for Australia.”
However, he emphasized that such measures would require legal authority.
“Wiretapping is available and the commission will have the same powers available to it, subject to a warrant, that the police and our intelligence services have and that’s appropriate,” he said.
The body will also have the power to raid Commonwealth premises – such as the defense or home departments – without a warrant.
Shadow Cyber Security Minister James Paterson said that while he supported the idea of the anti-corruption agency, he was concerned about any potential security implications.
“It will hold very sensitive and potentially classified information and that will make it a very attractive intelligence-gathering target for foreign intelligence services,” he told Sky News.
“If that is the case, they need to put in place the most robust protections possible.
“Honestly, I’d rather they didn’t have such sensitive information at all, but if they have to, it needs to come with the strongest possible protections to make sure it doesn’t get picked off.”
However, Dreyfus insisted that any sensitive information collected by the body would be “very carefully stored”.
“There are quite a number of provisions in the bill,” he said.
“This is the distinction you have to make for a national anti-corruption commission. It’s potentially going to be dealing with information about national security. It’s not something, generally speaking, that state and territory anti-corruption commissions have to worry about.
“This commission may have to worry about that, and there are special provisions to deal with that.”
The anti-corruption commission will not be an exercise in political payback, says Dreyfus
The Attorney-General also insisted the anti-corruption commission would not be an exercise in “political payback” after being asked if the Coalition’s notorious sports-rort program was “corrupt”.
A former auditor general’s report found that marginal and targeted sites had been favored to receive funding through the $100 million Community Sports Infrastructure Grant program until the 2019 election.
It was revealed that then Sports Minister Bridget McKenzie’s office color-coded the nearly 2,000 grant applications according to the party that had the voters.
Sir. Dreyfus was asked if the government’s pork production would be covered by the commission, since Mr. Dreyfus had previously described the scandal as “government corruption without a doubt”.
“I thought the idea of a decision made in the prime minister’s office when he had no power over the matter, with 51 colored spreadsheets revealed by the auditor general, looked pretty corrupt to me,” he said.
“But that will not be my decision. It will be a matter for this independent commissioner to decide whether someone should refer a case to her or him for a decision.
“This is not an exercise in political payback. This is not a partisan operation.”
He also rejected Shadow Attorney-General Julian Leeser’s claim that union officials would be protected from the commission’s investigative powers, saying it was “wrong”.
“Union officials are not excluded,” he said.
“Any third party that attempted to adversely influence public decision-making in a corrupt manner will be subject to investigation by this commission.”