According to today's report, the Attorney General's Department is seeking enhanced powers for ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) - Australia's domestic spying organisation - to be able to hack both the computers of suspected terrorists AND those of connected third parties. These third parties may be in such a position as to be a conduit for targeted malware to be delivered to the suspects' computers.
Despite the appearance of immediacy in the linked News Ltd report, this is based entirely on a response by the Attorney General's Department to questions raised during submissions to The House of Representative Committee overseeing "Inquiry into potential reforms of National Security Legislation" which seems to have been lodged in August or September of 2012.
Why should ASIO be empowered to hack third party computers that may belong to people who are not threats to national security?
The proposals would not involve hacking in the sense of authorising ASIO to examine the content of material. AGD notes the concerns raised in submissions to the Committee, for example from the Office of the Victorian Privacy Commissioner, that the proposal would allow surveillance of virtually unlimited services. However, the purpose of a warrant authorising the use of a third party computer would still be to access the computer of security interest, and the warrant would not authorise ASIO to obtain intelligence material from the third party computer or the communication in transit. The use of the third party computer is essentially like using a third party premises to gain access to a the premises to be searched where direct access is not possible. It involves no power to search or conduct surveillance on the third party.
Advances in technology have made it increasingly difficult for ASIO to execute its computer access warrants, particularly where a person of interest is security conscious and may use mechanisms that make it difficult to obtain access to the computer. Therefore, ASIO increasingly has to use innovative methods of achieving access to the computer of interest. In some cases, it may not be possible for ASIO to gain direct access to the relevant computer, and therefore ASIO may be unable to gather vital intelligence important in relation to security. The ability to use a third party computer or communication in transit for the purpose of executing a computer access warrant would enable ASIO to gain access to the relevant computer where direct access is not possible.
An Attorney general's Department spokesman said, it was proposed that ASIO would "use a third party computer for the specific purpose of gaining access to a target computer. The purpose of this power is to allow ASIO to access the computer of suspected terrorists and other security interests."
It was intended that the method would be used "in extremely limited circumstances and only when explicitly approved by the Attorney-General through a warrant. Importantly, the warrant would not authorise ASIO to obtain intelligence material from the third party computer."
This would, amongst other abilities, permit ASIO to make user of some web site as a conduit to deliver targeted snooping malware to the intended computer.
One would hope, with the third party's agreement.