Australia now has encryption-busting laws as Labor capitulates

Daniel Fowler
December 8, 2018

"Let's just make Australians safer over Christmas", Bill Shorten said on Thursday evening.

The proposal, opposed by the tech giants because Australia is seen as a test case for other nations who want to explore similar rules, faces a sterner test in the upper house where there are concerns about privacy and information security. The opposition Labor party had tried to amend the legislation, but that would have meant continuing the debate into next year, so the party dropped its amendments at the last minute.

Australia is the first of the Five Eyes nations, an intelligence alliance among Australia, the U.S, Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, to pass this sort of bill, which is set to become law by the end of this year.

"We will pass the legislation, inadequate as it is, so we can give our security agencies some of the tools they say they need".

The bill provides for fines of up to A$10 million (US$7.2 million) for institutions and prison terms for individuals for failing to hand over data linked to suspected illegal activities.

Australia is the first nation in the so-called "Five Eyes" alliance - also composed of Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Britain - to move ahead with legislation that will nearly inevitably result in a standoff with major private corporations.

"According to Reuters, member countries in the "Five Eyes" intelligence network (the US, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand) have been pressing for this type of legislation, and, "...have each warned that national security was at risk because authorities were unable to monitor the communications of suspects".

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The Law Council of Australia on Friday said the legislation "rammed" through parliament left open the possibility of "overreach" from the police and intelligence officials. What they haven't done is brought us into their confidence of how we're going to get access (to encrypted data) - are they going to build a vulnerability in at the front door?

Duncan Lewis, director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, noted during hearings that extremists share encrypted messages that Australia's main secret service can not intercept or read.

Companies including Apple, Facebook's WhatsApp, Wickr and Signal have created systems for which the encryption and decryption keys are held only on the devices.

The bill reportedly passed after Labour ministers agreed to do so at "the eleventh hour". "What about the open source projects that will ask their Australian contributors to stop working on their security code, and businesses who will choose not to employ Australian developers, or decline to open offices in that country?" wrote Danny O'Brien, worldwide director at the EFF.

The law, passed on Thursday, will require tech companies to give police access to encrypted data.

"Encryption underpins the foundations of a secure internet and the internet pervades everything that we do in a modern society", Tim de Sousa, a principal at privacy and cybersecurity consultancy elevenM, told AFP.

"If you require encryption to be undermined to help law enforcement investigations, then you are ultimately undermining that encryption in all circumstances". Australia and other countries have said that terrorists and criminals exploit this technology to avoid surveillance.

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