The ATO is now a counter-terrorism agency

The problem with allowing government and its agencies to chip away at civil liberties in the name of counter-terrorism is that they’re never satisfied.

Today, The Australian is reporting that the Australian Tax Office has sought “tough new powers to access phone taps, text messages and other communications” in a submission to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security.

Wait, what? That committee is currently in the middle of a parliamentary inquiry that’s supposed to examine the relationship between technology, national security and counter-terrorism. And the ATO has made a submission to it, arguing that it needs access to “real-time telecommunications data” to combat tax fraud.

Now, committing tax fraud is not the greatest idea, and as the ATO allegedly points out in its submission it is very costly to the Commonwealth, but tax fraud is not an example of terrorism. It’s not a national security issue.

In fact, this is all getting a bit Patriot Act for my liking. In an article about a year ago, NYMag found that the overwhelming majority (1618) of delayed-notice search warrants issued under the expanded Patriot Act between 2006 and 2009 were used for drug busts. A few (122) were used for fraud, and a paltry 15 were issued for terrorism.

The Patriot Act is possibly the last piece of legislation that should be used an inspiration for security policy, but that’s essentially what the ATO is doing. By seeking to expand its powers to tap your phones on the flimsiest of “because terrorism” excuses, the ATO has just proved that a heap of slippery-slope “counter-terrorism laws can lead to a wholesale erosion of basic freedoms” arguments do actually have merit.

This is something we should be worried about. It’s just the latest example on a long list of ways that counter-terrorism and national security justifications are being used to increase the level of government-sanctioned surveillance over our society. And a society afraid to look over its own shoulder is not one that I’m comfortable living in.

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