Home Government Tech Policy Australian laws aim to force decryption to fight crime

Australian laws aim to force decryption to fight crime

Australia has announced that it will promulgate laws to force companies like Google and Facebook to decrypt messages sent by suspected terrorists and other criminals.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull today announced that laws would be moved in Parliament by November to place such obligations on technology companies that provide apps for encrypted messaging.

No indication has been given by the government as to how it intends to enforce the laws.

“We’ve got a real problem in that the law enforcement agencies are increasingly unable to find out what terrorists and drug traffickers and paedophile rings are up to because of the very high levels of encryption,” Turnbull told reporters.

“Where we can compel it, we will, but we will need the co-operation from the tech companies.”

He said the government expected to face resistance from the tech companies.

“There is a culture, particularly in the United States, a very libertarian culture, which is quite anti-government in the tech sector,” Turnbull said.

“We need to say with one voice to Silicon Valley and its emulators: ‘All right, you’ve devised these great platforms, now you’ve got to help us to ensure that the rule of law prevails'.”

Attorney-General George Brandis said the growth of encrypted communications applications like WhatsApp, Signal, Facebook Messenger and iMessage represented “potentially the greatest degradation of intelligence and law enforcement capability that we have seen in our lifetime".

In an interview with Channel Seven's Sunrise programme earlier this week, Turnbull told presenter David Koch in response to a question: "We have the right now to get the co-operation from the telephone companies, from the telcos. What we don't have is the legal right to get that sort of cooperation from the Internet companies like Facebook, or WhatsApp or Telegram and so forth, and Google.

"So what we’ve got to do is modernise our laws. We cannot allow the Internet to be used as a place for terrorists and child molesters and people who peddle child pornography and drug traffickers to hide in the dark. Those dark places online must be illuminated by the law."

But Turnbull added that this did not mean he wanted backdoors in popular software. "I'm not talking about giving intelligence agencies backdoors or anything underhand. This is simply saying the rule of law must prevail online as it does off-line," he said.

Turnbull said he had discussed this at last week's G20 meeting. Brandis raised the issue at a meeting of the Five Eyes nations last month.

Brandis told the ABC's AM programme this morning: "We would apply to Internet companies, to device makers essentially the same obligations that apply under the existing law to enable provision of assistance to law enforcement and to the intelligence agencies, where it is necessary to deal with issues: with terrorism, with serious organised crime, with paedophile networks and so on."

He said he had been assured "by the leading experts in the world with whom I've spoken, including as I said before the chief cryptographer of GCHQ, that this is technically possible".

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.