Last month a paper that I wrote with Adam Molnar and Erik Zouave was published by Internet Policy Review. The article, “Computer network operations and ‘rule-with-law’ in Australia,” explores how the Australian government is authorized to engage in Computer Network Operations (CNOs). CNOs refer to government intrusion and/or interference with network information communications infrastructures for the purposes of law enforcement and national security operations.
The crux of our argument is that Australian government agencies are relatively unconstrained in how they can use CNOs. This has come about because of overly permissive, and often outdated, legislative language concerning technology that has been leveraged in newer legislation that expands on the lawful activities which government agencies can conduct. Australian citizens are often assured that existing oversight or review bodies — vis a vis legislative assemblies or dedicated surveillance or intelligence committees — are sufficient to safeguard citizens’ rights. We argue that the laws, as currently written, compel review and oversight bodies to purely evaluate the lawfulness of CNO-related activities. This means that, so long as government agencies do not radically act beyond their already permissive legislative mandates, their oversight and review bodies will assert that their expansive activities are lawful regardless of the intrusive nature of the activities in question.
While the growing capabilities of government agencies’ lawful activities, and limitations of their review and oversight bodies, have commonalities across liberal democratic nations, Australia is in a particularly novel position. Unlike its closest allies, such as Canada, the United States, New Zealand, or the United Kingdom, Australia does not have a formal bill of rights or a regional judicial body to adjudicate on human rights. As we write, “[g]iven that government agencies possess lawful authority to conduct unbounded CNO operations and can seek relatively unbounded warrants instead of those with closely circumscribed limits, the rule of law has become distorted and replaced with rule of law [sic]”.
Ultimately, CNOs represent a significant transformation and growth of the state’s authority to intrude and affect digital information. That these activities can operate under a veil of exceptional secrecy and threaten the security of information systems raises questions about whether the state has been appropriately restrained in exercising its sovereign powers domestically and abroad: these powers have the capability to extend domestic investigations into the computers of persons around the globe, to facilitate intelligence operations that target individuals and millions of persons alike, and to damage critical infrastructure and computer records. As such, CNOs necessarily raise critical questions about the necessity and appropriateness of state activities, while also showcasing the state’s lack of accountability to the population is is charged with serving.