Big brother is watching and reading your emails

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THEY say that if you haven’t got anything to hide, you don’t have anything to worry about.

But that sort of argument doesnt fly with the civil libertarians among us ... and neither will the tax mans latest power grab.

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) could soon have tough new powers allowing it to access stored phone calls, emails and text messages, under a proposal to plug a potential budget black hole.

The proposal aims to claw back a portion of the billions of dollars hoarded by high-level tax cheats, The Australian reports.

There is, of course, nothing to stop the ATO from using those powers, in its annual crackdowns, on select Joe Bloggs workers and small business owners, be they tradies, teachers or taxi drivers.

A parliamentary joint committee yesterday gave the proposal the thumbs-up, arguing the extra powers were needed to protect the public purse from serious criminal activities and recommended they be approved with appropriate safeguards, including adequate privacy and oversight arrangements.

If this happens, the ATO will have some of the same powers as police, corruption commissions and the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act, the controversial legislation that gave authorities the power to access our phone and internet data without a warrant.

The full implications of the data retention laws are yet to be felt, as service providers have a two-year amnesty to get their systems ready to store all the required data in an encrypted format, which includes the date, time, duration, source and destination of each communication.

The ATO already works in partnership with the ACC to gather evidence of tax fraud, as part of a three-year, $2 million surveillance contract targeting international tax evasion, tax refund fraud, tax avoidance schemes, fraudulent business structures and the cash economy.

ACC surveillance officers are qualified to carry out surveillance in vehicles and on foot, electronic monitoring and recording, and capturing photographic evidence.

Law enforcement committee chairman Craig Kelly MP, a NSW Liberal, said the ATO needed expanded power to enhance its ability to deter crooks, The Australianreports.

Mr Kelly noted the US gangster Al Capone was only jailed when the Internal Revenue Office nabbed him on tax evasion charges.

Project Wickenby, the ATOs widely-publicised operation targeting high net worth individuals, raised $2.85 billion in tax liabilities, but only managed to recoup $946.53 million.