Australian law enforcement and government agencies have sharply increased their access without warrant to vast quantities of private telephone and internet data, prompting new calls for tighter controls on surveillance powers.
Government agencies accessed private telecommunications data and internet logs more than 300,000 times during criminal and revenue investigations in 2011-12, a 20 per cent increase on the level of surveillance activity in the year before.
Figures from the federal Attorney-General's Department show that on average, these agencies obtained private data from telecommunications and internet service providers 5800 times every week.
The data available to government agencies under federal law includes phone and internet account information, outwards and inwards call details, phone and internet access location data, and details of Internet Protocol addresses visited (though not the actual content of communications).
Data access is authorised by senior police officers or officials, rather than by a judicial warrant.
New South Wales Police were the biggest users of telecommunications data, with 103,824 access authorisations in 2011-12. Victoria Police accessed data 67,173 times in the same period, while the Australian Federal Police did so 23,001 times.
Victoria Police has said that the increased data access could be attributed to "investigator knowledge becom[ing] more widely known, technology changes and auto processing [that has] simplified the process".
Federal government agencies using telecommunications data include the Australian Crime Commission, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, the Australian Tax Office, numerous government departments, Medicare, Centrelink and Australia Post.
It is also used by all state police and anti-corruption bodies and a growing number of state government departments and agencies, including the Victorian Department of Primary Industries, the Victorian Taxi Directorate and WorkSafe Victoria.
Data is also accessed by the RSPCA in Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania, and by local governments, including Wyndham City Council in Melbourne's west. The RSPCA has investigative powers in respect of animal cruelty.
"This is the personal data of hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of Australians, and it seems that just about anyone in government can get it," said Australian Greens senator Scott Ludlam.
He said the increase in access authorisations demonstrated the current data access regime was "out of control" and amounted to the framework for a "surveillance state".
"There can't be much in the way of working checks and balances if we have a 20 per cent surge in activity in one year, and more than 300,000 authorisations."
Statistics for access by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation are security classified and not published.
The federal government's proposals for a further expansion of law enforcement access to telecommunications data, including a minimum two-year data retention standard for phone and internet providers, have generated public debate and controversy.
However, Attorney-General Nicola Roxon did not issue any media release to accompany her department's report, which was tabled in Parliament without debate on Thursday, the final parliamentary sitting day for the year.
A spokesperson for Ms Roxon said "these new statistics show telephone interception and surveillance powers are playing an even greater role for police so they can successfully pursue kidnappers, murderers and organised criminals".
"Parliament's intelligence committee is currently reviewing telephone interception and surveillance powers to ensure police can stay one step in front of criminals, while also having have the right checks and balances to ensure that those who enforce our national security laws do so responsibly." Senator Ludlam called for tighter controls on access to personal data, including a requirement for warrants to be issued by an independent authority.
"It's incumbent on the Parliament's national security inquiry to recommend some form of warrant authorisation be introduced, and that there be a review and reduction of the government agencies that can access the personal communications data of millions of Australians."
However, the latest statistics also show a 7.7per cent jump in the number of telecommunications interception warrants issued to law enforcement agencies, with 3755 phone taps being authorised in 2011-12.
AGENCIES GETTING DATA WITHOUT WARRANTS 2011-12
■ Australian Crime Commission
■ Government departments including the Tax Office, Medicare, Centrelink, Australia Post
■ Statistics for access by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation are security classified and not published
■ State police and anti-corruption bodies
■ Government departments including the Victorian Taxi Directorate, Worksafe
■ RSPCA in Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania
■ Local governments including Wyndham City Council in Melbourne's west
- Sydney Morning Herald