The government of the Australian state of New South Wales has unveiled plans to give state police the power to hack into computers remotely, with owners potentially remaining in the dark about the searches for up to three years.
The new powers are part of a package introduced into parliament last week by Premier Nathan Rees. Broadly, they aim to give police the right to apply for covert search warrants from the Supreme Court to gather evidence in cases that could involve serious indictable offenses punishable by at least seven years' imprisonment.
Judges issuing the new warrants could authorize owners not being told about the searches for up to three years (under exceptional circumstances), NSW Police Minister Tony Kelly said in a statement, with police having to apply for several extensions to get the full period.
Rees said the laws would enable computers to be searched, including access to "computers networked to a computer at the premises being searched."
"Police will also be able to gain remote access to computers for seven days at a time, up to a total of 28 days or longer in exceptional circumstances, to allow them, to undertake forensic off-site examiniation," Rees said.
"This could including cracking codes and searching computers for evidence of child porn, drug running, and money laundering."
Offenses covered by the new laws include the supply, manufacture, or cultivation of drugs; possession, manufacture or sale of firearms; money laundering; car or boat re-birthing; and unauthorized access to or modification of computer data or electronic communications.
Also included are theft (if carried out on an organized basis); violence causing grievous bodily harm or wounding; possession, manufacture or supply of false instruments; corruption; destruction of property; homicide; and kidnapping.
"We have been fine-tuning this legislation to ensure that we can keep up with fast evolving technology," said Rees. "This places police on an equal footing with the criminals they are tracking."
The news comes after similar moves in Europe have recently been gathering pace. For example, in January the U.K. government said it had agreed to work with the European Union parliament on plans to extend police powers to conduct remote searches of computers.
However, not everyone has been happy with the initiatives, with privacy campaigners complaining and security vendors maintaining they would protect users' computers indiscriminately, regardless of who was attempting to break in to them.
The covert search warrants would be available to the NSW Police Force, the NSW Crime Commission, and the Police Integrity Commission.
Renai LeMay of ZDNet Australia reported from Sydney.