Australia’s domestic spy agency says it has detected a rise in suspicious online activity during the coronavirus lockdown, which may have allowed extremists more opportunities to target young people.
- ASIO says it has detected an increase in extremist activity online during the coronavirus lockdown period
- Officers say there has also been a rise in “anti-China” and “anti-migration” sentiment in communities
- Peter Dutton introduced a bill to allow ASIO to question 14-year-old suspects of extremist involvement
The warnings from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation come as it pushes for the ability to question 14-year-olds and to place tracking devices in the cars of terrorism suspects without a warrant.
A bill introduced by the Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton this month would grant ASIO the controversial powers, in line with recommendations made by Parliament’s powerful intelligence and security committee, the PJCIS, in 2018.
In a submission to the committee the intelligence agency argues “as security threats evolve, ASIO’s ability to respond must also evolve”.
ASIO believes extremists are being radicalised at a younger age, with one of the seven terrorist attacks conducted in Australia since 2014 carried out by a school-age person, and three thwarted plots involving minors.
“The extension of the existing questioning power to those as young as 14 who are the target of a politically motivated violence investigation — with appropriate safeguards — reflects a shift in the security environment since 2003 that has seen younger and younger people involved in extremist activities,” the submission says.
Under the proposed amendments to the Australian Security and Intelligence Act, ASIO would also be allowed to attach tracking devices to cars without applying for a warrant.
In its submission, ASIO said allowing the devices to be used without warrants would help in “balancing the need to maintain physical surveillance of investigative targets with the need to protect our surveillance officers from physical threats.”
“This is particularly the case in the current security environment, in which threats can manifest extremely quickly,” it said.
Over the past few weeks ASIO is believed to have monitored an increase in extremist activity online while residents have been confined to their homes due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Intelligence officers also detected a rise in “anti-China” and “anti-migration” sentiment in the community as a result of the global pandemic, although it was not clear whether any threats had been uncovered.
The Law Council of Australia welcomed some aspects of the ASIO legislation but questioned the need to lower the minimum age for questioning a terror suspect from 16 to 14.
ASIO defended the change, saying it “represents a balanced and proportionate response to evolving security threats”.
“The Bill repeals ASIO’s more intrusive detention powers and replaces them with a less intrusive compulsory questioning framework.”