Why ASIC wants to read your personal emails and text messages

The Australian Securities and Investment Commission is pushing for access to personal emails, social media chats and text messages for its investigations of white-collar crime.

The corporate watchdog wants the powers to intercept the times, dates and details of telecommunications information along with access to the contents of emails, social media chats and text messages.

This would give ASIC more power than the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation have sought to investigate terrorism and suspected murderers.

ASIC commissioner Greg Tanzer yesterday told a joint parliamentary inquiry into national security legislation that ASIC’s current surveillance powers meant it was fighting with “one hand tied behind our back”.

“ASIC’s current inability to access lawfully intercepted information for the purposes of ASIC’s own investigations and prosecutions, including those relating to serious offences, such as insider trading and market manipulation, is a serious impediment to the effective performance of law enforcement functions,”  Tanzer said.

The inquiry is considering forcing telcos to keep details about every Australian’s phone and internet use for up to two years.

Telcos oppose the plan as they say it would cost millions of dollars a month to keep this much data.

Telstra told the hearing both the effectiveness and the costs of the scheme will vary substantially depending on how detailed the scope is.

“At the broader end of potential schemes, the costs of data retention for the telecommunications industry, and ultimately telecommunications consumers, could be high and the associated security and privacy concerns raised by the proposals significant,” James Shaw, director of government relations at Telstra said.

“On the other hand, data retention obligations of a more narrow scope may be less costly and raise fewer security and privacy concerns.”

Associate Professor Frank Zumbo, of the University of New South Wales’ school of business, says corporate regulators need strong powers.

“Obviously we need to give our corporate regulators such as ASIC and the ACCC the strongest possible powers to crack down on white collar crime, particularly given it might be costing consumers millions if not tens of millions of dollars,” he says.

“It’s a debate we need to have but it’s important the powers are subject to strong safeguards, strict time limits and powers subject to court approval.”

Zumbo says consistency is needed between different agencies and it is important for ASIC, ACCC and AFP to have similar powers, as often they need to co-operate with each other.

“White collar criminals are becoming more sophisticated in their use of computer technology. So it is important the regulators keep up with that technology to try to stay ahead of the criminals to be able to effectively tackle white collar crime,” Zumbo says.

ASIC declined to comment.

This article was first published on LeadingCompany’s sister site, SmartCompany.


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