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Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security inquiry into the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014 Public Hearing

Title of speech: 
Opening statement by Mr Duncan Lewis, AO, DSC, CSC
Director-General of Security
Friday, January 30, 2015

Thank you for the opportunity to provide some opening remarks at this inquiry.

The shocking and terrible acts of violence we have witnessed in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and most recently France, emphasise the gravity of the threat posed by terrorism. These tragic events, as well as the turmoil in Syria and Iraq, illustrate the disturbed world in-which security intelligence and law enforcement agencies are currently operating in. We deal with people with no regard for the law, with no regard for community, and often, with no regard for human life.

ASIO is the only Australian Government agency that is legislated to both collect and assess intelligence. Our routine business relies on capturing and verifying numerous sources of reliable intelligence. The functional information provided through telecommunications interception is one such source. And it is a source of intelligence which we consider to be a fundamental building block for intelligence-led investigations. It is a fundamental building block for ASIO to provide the security protection and the warning which the Australian community expects.

The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014 is a critical piece of legislative reform aimed to ensure Australia’s security intelligence and law enforcement capability remains relevant and effective. Access to historical communications data is vitally important in ASIO’s effort to identify threats to security and keep Australians and Australia’s interests safe.

I wish to stress, ASIO is not seeking new powers to ensure access to this information. Rather, the aim is to ensure legislation is in place that will enable ASIO to keep pace with the inexorable modernisation and standardisation of access in what we know to be a rapidly changing communications environment. Again, this legislative reform is critical to ensure that ASIO remains able to gain an intelligence insight — to keep ahead of people wishing to commit acts of terrorism, espionage, and politically motivated violence— to protect against people with no regard for Australian law or community values.

Historical communications data has proved essential in the resolution of the security matter in ASIO’s high priority investigations. That includes the prevention of terrorist attacks. Some ASIO counter terrorism investigations, where Australian authorities have prevented the loss of life in Sydney and Melbourne, are well-known and have been reported on by the media. Less known is the way in which historical communications data has been of assistance of us as we tackle the problems of countering espionage. I would like to note that ASIO has provided a submission to the Committee, including in-private, which has specific examples regarding ASIO’s use of historical communications data to investigate and resolve serious threats to Australia’s national security.

In the bill, it is proposed that historical communications data be retained for two years. ASIO supports this provision. However, I would like point out that I regard this retention period as a pragmatic compromise. Ideally, ASIO’s data needs would be better met if there was a significantly longer retention period. I want to stress that with the competing interests, in terms of the triangle of privacy, business efficiency and security, I accept that a two year retention period is an acceptable minimum.

ASIO’s role is to investigate and provide advice on threats to Australia’s national security. We take these responsibilities very seriously. In doing this work, we are very mindful of the importance of using the least intrusive method of collection, proportionate to the level of threat. When an individual comes to ASIO’s attention there are a range of methods that can be applied to establish whether that person’s activities are relevant to security or not. Requesting historical communications data is often one of the most useful, as well as one of the least intrusive methods. In many cases, a simple subscriber check on a phone number is sufficient to determine there is no further investigation required.

This data is collected lawfully. I, as well as my officers, understand the sensitivity of these holdings. They are strictly controlled, well managed and access highly accountable. In ASIO we strictly adhere to the need-to-know principle, in addition we have numerous internal accountability mechanisms to ensure the protection of this data.

ASIO uses more intrusive collection methods only where it is warranted by the level of the threat to Australia’s national security. In these cases, ASIO is careful to ensure that the level of intrusion into individual privacy remains proportionate to that threat, in accordance with the Guidelines provided by the Attorney-General.

It is not and will not be the case that ASIO automatically requests the maximum amount of data available. Should this bill become law, ASIO will continue to request access to historical communications data needed only for the purposes of carrying out our functions, regardless of the length of time that data may be available for.

We abide by the law. ASIO’s work is also highly accountable though a range of external and internal processes. I note ASIO’s internal processes are open to and regularly reviewed by the Inspector-General for Intelligence and Security.

In summary, I would like to invoke some of the words uttered by international figures around this particular issue. International figures who have stressed publically the need for continued access to metadata or historical communications data include Angela Murkel, Chancellor of Germany; James Comey, FBI Director; and Andrew Parker, MI5 Director General. We are not alone in this global situation. This is a global issue and an international problem — we are addressing the Australian aspect of it.

Finally, I want to reiterate four things:

  1. Access to historical communication data is not a new power.
  2. It is a power that is critical to our work in protecting Australia.
  3. It is essential to maintain this capability in the face of a changing communications landscape.
  4. It is one that already has a strong accountability regime, and we have shown that we are diligent in complying with that regime.

Thank you.