Sweeping reforms will make it easier than ever for law enforcement to intercept communications if amendments to the Telecommunications (Interceptions) Act are agreed upon by a Senate standing committee.
The federal government is pushing a bill to force all telecommunications providers to facilitate lawful data interception across fixed and mobile telephone systems, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), Instant Messaging (IM) and chat room discussions.
The standing committee is meeting on Thursday to discuss the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment Bill 2008 (TIA).
The amendments build on previous reforms by the then Howard government which required Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to implement wiretapping provisions in VoIP services.
Private organisations will be handed "quasi-police" powers under separate government plans announced on Monday.
Attorney-General Robert McClelland said business owners will be handed powers to intercept employee emails without notice in a bid to prevent cyber-terrorism.
Consumer advocacy groups are outraged by the reforms and have questioned the motives of the government, labelling the move as a blatant invasion of privacy.
NSW Council of Civil Liberties president, Cameron Murphy, said the changes are unnecessary and will inadvertently subject hundreds of people to privacy violations.
"These laws will massively increase the number of interception points available for techniques such as wiretapping," Murphy said.
"Everything from online chatting, to Skype (VoIP) and mobile phone calls will be open to interception."
He believes the changes are being driven by law enforcement which is effectively offloading its work on the private industry.
The reforms also violate the privacy of other parties involved in a monitored communication channel, according to the Council, the Australian Privacy Foundation (APF) and the Electronic Frontiers Association (EFA).
The organisations told Computerworld that NSW law, which allows businesses to intercept employee emails with consent, is a breach of the TIA and the Privacy Act. The problem arises from ambiguity in the law which does not stipulate rules for dealing with third party information, and what constitutes consent.
APF board member Roger Clarke called on the government to provide clarity and scope on the new proposals, including what the changes hope to ultimately achieve and who will be affected. "Any employer that acted on the powers of interception (under the NSW bill) are in breach of the TIA and the Privacy Act if they are accessing the information of non-employees," Clarke said.
"The attempts of the Attorney-General's Departments of successive governments to get some changes to the TIA have been torn apart by various agencies because they haven't addressed scope.
"Every time ministers open their mouths on this type of policy, they keep saying something stupid." He said the scope of the changes can be interpreted to apply to all employers, to private organisations with a responsibility to national infrastructure, or to investigators of serious threats against nation infrastructure.
"The last thing we want is private investigators running with enormous powers if an act of terrorism occurs," Clarke said, speaking of McClelland's reference that the employers powers is a counter-terrorism measure.
The APF has argued for years for workplace privacy protection law reform, and for interception to be solely in the hands of trained investigators under the public service framework.
Both Murphy, Clarke and EFA chair Dale Clapperton called for government to document what it sees as problems with the TIA.