Australian police now have the power to routinely access public WiFi networks in order to obtain information on connected users. This comes after the introduction of an intrusive and highly controversial new surveillance law in December 2018 – the Telecommunications Access and Assistance Act.

Under this new legislation, police in Australia are now able to compel a whole range of different companies to hand over information about the people using their WiFi networks. Any company or organization that’s classed as a ‘communications provider’ is required to disclose user information to the police upon request.

This broad definition means that it’s not only telecoms companies that are affected. The law also covers social media networks, manufacturers of connected devices, free WiFi providers, and a huge range of general retailers.

Prior to an article released by The Guardian on Tuesday 28 May, this controversial legislation had not been publicly discussed in Australia. Specific details of the surveillance powers it involves have only recently come to light due to a freedom of information request that was made in order to obtain a departmental briefing that was previously for internal viewing only.

The revelation that the Australian government deliberately attempted to keep this new power secret could grow into a sizeable political scandal, as it highlights how little it is willing to disclose to its own citizens, even when potentially invasive surveillance is involved.

This now means that, in theory, any public WiFi provider in Australia could be forced to hand over the details of anyone using their WiFi network to the police. Australian public WiFi users are now not only at risk of being hacked or snooped on by their ISPs or various other third parties, they now also have to worry about their own law enforcement agencies.

Previously, people had hoped that this new law wouldn’t last long, but following the re-election of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the current Liberal government, it is assumed that it will remain in place for the foreseeable future. The Australian Labor party had previously committed to amending the law to make it more privacy-friendly, but failed to follow through on its promise.

Since the Telecommunications Access and Assistance Act came into force in Australia last year, there has been a notable spike in VPN use in the country, as this is the only way for people to ensure they can stay safe while connected to public WiFi networks.