Proposed powers for the nation's federal police would help stop thousands of Australians from becoming the target of international crime syndicates, according to the head of one of Australia's top spy agencies.
The Home Affairs-drafted bill, which will give the Australian Federal Police and Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission new powers to identify and disrupt online criminal activity, is being reviewed by a Parliamentary committee following scrutiny over its broad-reaching powers.
If passed, the bill will grant the agencies with three new warrant types - the ability to obtain data disruption warrants, monitor network activity and covertly take control of online accounts, including social media sites.
It would provide the federal police and intelligence commission with powers similar to those of Australia's overseas intelligence gathering agency, the Australian Signals Directorate, in certain circumstances.
The directorate's head, Rachel Noble, told the committee that under existing legislation it had its hands tied if international criminal networks had links to Australia.
"If our operational staff form that view, then they will immediately stop work," Ms Noble said Wednesday evening.
"ASD officers are in a position of watching crime happen to Australian victims, sometimes, and not [being] able to hand it over anywhere."
Ms Noble said the directorate had uncovered an organised syndicate that had sold malware to would-be criminals around the world, and had worked to disrupt it and assist victims.
But it was not able to help victims in Australia nor hand it over to a federal agency capable of continuing the investigation, Ms Noble said.
"ASD cannot under its legislation take any action to address it," Ms Noble said.
"However, the warrants proposed in this bill, for example, and the AFP touched on this as a case study in their own submission, would allow the AFP to prevent that future crime from occurring by assisting Australian victims."
Human rights and privacy advocates have slammed the proposal, arguing the bill's language is too vague and could result in "scope creep".
Human Rights Law Centre legal expert Kieran Pender, who appeared at Wednesday's hearing, said the bill's broad approach could mean lawful Australians might fall under surveillance too.
"These sweeping surveillance powers intrude on people's privacy and have a chilling effect on the exercise of political rights," Mr Pender said.
"This bill should be withdrawn from Parliament or substantially rewritten.
"We must remain vigilant against the rise of surveillance in this country."
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton referred the bill to the committee in December and said he expected it would be reintroduced before the end of May.
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