Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo, his minister Peter Dutton, the Australian Federal Police, and sundry crime bodies in the Home Affairs portfolio, operating in the new co-ordinated mode, are proving indefatigable in their search for extra powers to conduct cyber warfare against Australian criminals.
But, as ever, that they are framing their argument on the basis of an alleged need, currently unsatisfied, to disrupt paedophiles watching live sex abuse online suggests that their basic argument is weak and should be thrown out of court.
For many of us, the idea of any young child, probably from a country such as the Philippines, being sexually abused on demand for the gratification of Australian men is so horrible that one might think that if the new powers prevented only one instance, it would be worthwhile. The horror of paedophilia has that sort of effect on the emotions.
But the realist might doubt that even a single new case, previously unable to be unearthed, would be discovered because of the new powers. The AFP and state crime agencies already have considerable capacity to bug, tap, hack, and find information about suspected criminals from third parties, and there is little evidence that their lonely jihad against paedophilia is hampered by a lack of support from the Australian Signals Directorate.
ASD can, and does, gather intelligence on the supply side of the international child-sex exploitation industry, and can, and does, disrupt their activities, including by destroying their websites. It's all low-level practice for military or economic cyber war, at which ASD has both defensive and offensive capacity.
But ASD is not, other than in exceptional circumstances, allowed to spy on Australians in Australia. For that matter, its capacity is supposed to be rather more focused on national security than Australian crime, even if it has a legislative mandate to pass on, and, under instruction, disrupt criminal enterprises it discovers in the course of its gathering intelligence to support our soldiers, monitor regional politics and defend Australia and its economy from the threat of cyber-attack.
The idea of ASD having a local role has been an agenda item, particularly for Mike Pezzullo, for several years. His discussions with Defence Department and then ASD head Mike Burgess (now the Director-General of ASIO) led to a leak to a journalist from News Corp, still being investigated by the AFP, even if the minister and bureaucrats deny such a project.
But last week, Mr Dutton and a pre-prepared team from Home Affairs and its agencies were gnawing at the bone again. They were downplaying the breadth of the latest proposal, of which details were thin. There was no discussion of warrants, or systems of accountability or external scrutiny, or how such powers, if granted, would be used only in combatting serious crime. Experience has shown that other powers, pretended as essential for countering Islamic terrorism, were being used by some agencies to find fine defaulters, including parking offenders, as well as to track down persons of interest to Centrelink and Border Force.
Mr Dutton said he wanted to be sure that if police could get a warrant from a court to raid a paedophile's house and search it for child sex material, they could also "have the same power to do that in the online life of the paedophile. Nothing more, nothing less".
He's working on the assumption that such material is being distributed within Australia, to customers also within Australia. It almost certainly is, though Australia is less suitable, from an organisational point of view, for relative want of victims compared with a third-world or lawless country. A good many observers say that police already have such powers, if with controls they find inconvenient and cumbersome.
The AFP does not depend only, or mostly, on ASD for its leads to the international trade in child-exploitation materials. It has its own trawling, a steady and increasing volume of tips from its new role as the point of liaison with Interpol, and tips from the public and state police agencies. There's the work of AUSTRAC in monitoring money transactions to places such as the Philippines or the old Soviet Union, the Criminal Intelligence Commission and the work of state police agencies, and a wide range of intelligence algorithms using machine learning to identify suspects, suspicious transactions, and networks of paedophiles.
A recent research paper by the somewhat-neutralised Institute of Criminology profiled about 260 international child-sex-material consumers identified from AUSTRAC searches. Eight of these bought 55 per cent of the material, and about 65 people bought, between them, about 3 per cent. Ten per cent - 26 people - had an existing sexual offence on their record; about 145 had no criminal record at all. The classic offender was a man aged between 50 and 60.
Once, police would be citing their war against illegal drugs, or the war against terrorism, as justification for such powers. We would be told that organised criminals, or terrorists, were increasingly wealthy, sophisticated and agile, with their own counter-security and increasingly making use of the deep net or encryption or sophisticated communications technology to defeat the best efforts of law enforcement.
One of the advantages of the terrorism justification was its effect of linking crime-fighting with urgent national security needs, with the result that pressure for scrutiny, accountability and process could be resisted. But even with some terror threat still apparent, the national security state has been unable to maintain the pitch of imminent threat. Likewise, the war against drugs has become relatively ho hum, with the public well aware that police activity is having almost no effect on illegal drug supply (or drug prices, or drug profits) and no effect on demand. In short, a lot of police activity - very expensive and dangerous at times - for no real effect on the illegal drug market or the incidental crimes (murder, rip-offs, territorial wars etc.) that the trade engenders while police focus on the enforcement model.
MORE FROM JACK WATERFORD:
Child sexual abuse is, of course, a great scourge of society, here and abroad, and the mere fact that police are manipulating the public's revulsion from it for political ends need not disqualify their case. But it was once the last resort of the "more powers, fewer controls and rules" brigade, and is now the first resort. If it is the best justification, what is the public getting for the considerable cost, and the diminution of public freedoms involved?
I have remarked before that the AFP, and later Home Affairs and the minister, jumped on child sexual offences as a springboard to new police powers only recently. Two decades ago, the AFP had no real profile on the subject. It had been involved in investigations into child sex abuse abroad, and, more ineffectually and belatedly, into the problem of sex tourism, including child-sex tourism, particularly in nearby tourist destinations. There was some monitoring of online pornography, and the commodification of extreme pornography, including of child-sex exploitation, but cases generally were sent to the relevant state jurisdictions, if only for a want of clear Commonwealth jurisdiction. Even after legislation was created, and umpteen police officers (including a seconded Peter Dutton) were cycled through child sexual exploitation squads, there was little in the way of results.
At the intelligence level, it (and reports from more active police and intelligence agencies abroad) was studied as a subset of traditional organised crime activity. As crime in its own right, it was usually handed over to state or territorial agencies. At that stage the AFP was not the post office for Interpol tip-offs, and these were farmed out by jurisdiction.
State and territorial police activity against child sexual abuse was a disgrace, as became quite evident during the royal commission into the sexual abuse of children in institutions. In many cases the police were simply not interested or did not believe the victims, especially if the alleged perpetrator, or the institution from which he came, was regarded with any awe by police. In many cases, such as with religious ministers, police were actively helping to cover up the problem. As with other very prevalent social problems, such as rape and sexual assaults on women and domestic violence, the problem was ill-understood by most police, as were patterns of victimhood, including, often, the fact that complaints were often not made for many years.
But if cases of online access to international child-sex-abuse materials were but a drop in the ocean compared with the number and networks involved in sexual abuse in schools, orphanages, and sporting and cultural groups, the evidence suggests that the number of sex-abuse cases in institutions was a tiny proportion of cases in ordinary society. As we have been repeatedly told, but sometimes forget when we see a crusade for more high-tech powers, most child sexual abuse occurs in the home.
It is mostly committed by a family member, or a person well-known to the victim. And, as with the institutional abuse cases, the assaults often do not come to light for many years, in part because some victims blame themselves, or fear that the consequence of complaint will be the break-up of the family. "Stranger danger" exists, but like other public relations constructs is too much emphasised compared with the risk from an uncle, step-father or next-door neighbour.
At this level of the problem, police activity was almost non-existent, even after the welfare establishment had generally succeeded in making child abuse a notifiable event. Welfare authorities heard reports - sometimes lodging notifications themselves when they saw children in danger - and, within their resources, tried hard to see if they could substantiate complaints.
Australian statistics on child abuse and child sex abuse are woeful - being more focused on formal reports, substantiations and so on than on statistics of victims. Some jurisdictions, particularly in Canada and parts of the United States, have long-term statistics that point to the size of the problem. What we know about Australian victims suggests they follow this pattern.
Only 10 per cent of victims ever go to or come to the attention of police or welfare authorities. [One of the problems of using welfare case files is that we have no way of knowing whether these are typical cases, worst cases, or cases plucked from a particular subset of society, such as Indigenous Australians and the underclasses. No one has ever demonstrated that race or class is a significant factor in predicting whether someone - most likely a young girl - will be sexually assaulted. But welfare files, for obvious reasons, are heavily skewed in this direction.]
Another problem was that "victimhood" was often being levered by police, social workers or parents into their preconceptions of what it "should" look like. Many victims showing signs of distress were adjudged naughty or given to lying, as with another massively unreported crime - rape - where there has long been a tendency on the part of (male) detectives to assume that rape must be accompanied by obvious violence.
Canadian figures suggest that about 20 per cent of women and between 5 and 10 per cent of men experienced some form of sexual abuse as children. Generally, they reported the abuse as occurring between the ages of seven to 13. In about half the cases, with either boys or girls, the abuse involved sexual penetration. It seems that more than 90 per cent of the perpetrators were men, and that the perpetrator was known to the victim about 90 per cent of the time.
It seems that at least a third of the perpetrators have clear paedophilic tendencies, in the psychiatric sense. But that means that two thirds - fathers, uncles, brothers, neighbours, teachers and boyfriends - are opportunistic predators, almost as likely to re-offend. It is hard to know who are worse.
In no way do I diminish the suffering of children being abused in third-world countries for the sexual gratification of older Australian men. Australia has a moral duty to these victims that cannot be swallowed up by the knowledge that Australia itself may have as many as 700,000 children (of 5 million under 18) who are being or have been sexually abused. It's quite likely, if the harrowing royal commission reports are any guide, that in a significant proportion, the abuse has been as serious and severe, if not necessarily photographed or broadcast.
That's on top of the icebergs of older siblings, now adults, parents and grandparents also abused in their childhood, but with cases now perhaps regarded as being less urgent because they are now less vulnerable or more safe.
We cannot, should not, blame police alone for failing to stumble over this nightmare in our midst. But we should not kid ourselves that there's now a national action plan, guided by the wise AFP, to make sure it doesn't continue to happen.
When cops, politicians and ambitious public servants use the sexual abuse of children to further promote a national surveillance state on the Chinese model - at least as soon as Home Affairs can buy a computer that works - there's an implication that anyone expressing a doubt is in favour of paedophilia. One might wonder instead whether decades of shameful failure to protect children shows a systemic fault not yet addressed. One that will be cured by will and new insights, not toys and a "free hand".
Asked about it all later this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, of a police family background and outlook on life, remarked that "if I thought someone was abusing a child somewhere, I'd kick the door down, I'd go and try to rescue that child".
"Those who want to abuse children shouldn't be able to hide in the internet," he said. "And if they're doing it, I'm going to use every tool at my disposal to try to protect that child... [Police will] get what they need to protect the kids.''
Bravo. What a pity this vehement attitude does not extend to those of his friends who have protected perpetrators from arrest and punishment by failing, as the law required, to report their activities to police. On matters like this, his personal friendships, and his social engagements, are not private matters, but ones of real public interest. Sadly, that's not the sort of offence the AFP has the power, or will, to prosecute.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times. firstname.lastname@example.org