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Australia streamlines security reforms

Sydney - Australia on Wednesday unveiled the first in what it said would be a series of sweeping national security reforms aimed at deterring leaks of classified information and vastly expanding its power to monitor personal computers.

Under legislation proposed by Attorney General George Brandis, employees of the clandestine Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) could face a decade in prison for removing classified materials.

Under legislation proposed by Attorney General George Brandis, employees of the clandestine Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) could face a decade in prison for removing classified materials. Credit: AFP

The laws would also streamline the process by which the government obtains permission to search computers and private networks and allow for greater intelligence sharing between Australia's domestic and foreign spy services.

The reforms were needed to update legislation written in the 1970s, Brandis said, and were in the same spirit as emergency legislation passed last week in Britain forcing telecoms firms to retain customer data.

“This is very much the way that Western nations are going,” he told reporters in Canberra.

Brandis said that future tranches of the reforms requiring Australian telecoms firms to store personal information and data for up to two years were under “active consideration” by his office, a prospect viewed uneasily by privacy advocates.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten of the Labor Party said that his party would support the legislation, provided it included “a diligent and effective independent monitor to ensure there are no abuses of national security”.

Australia has in recent months raised the alarm about the number of its citizens believed to be fighting alongside insurgents in Syria and Iraq.

The expansion of surveillance powers would allow Australia to forestall those citizens returning home and conducting terrorist acts, Brandis and ASIO Chief David Irvine said at a press conference.

“In the current operating environment ... there is a need to know what Australians are up to, particularly if they are going to come home and commit terrorist acts here in Australia,” Irvine said.

Brandis said the proposals would likely be passed by the lower house of parliament, which is controlled by the ruling conservative Liberal-National coalition, in the spring sitting later this year. - Reuters

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