Australia passes new data encryption laws

Cornelia Mascio
Dicembre 8, 2018

Australia's top legal body on Friday (Dec 7) warned of police and intelligence "overreach" after Canberra rushed through Parliament controversial laws allowing the authorities to circumvent encrypted communications.

Under the legislation, Canberra can compel local and worldwide providers - including overseas communication giants such as Facebook and WhatsApp - to remove electronic protections, hide covert operations by government agencies, and help with access to devices or services.

In September, the governments of the Five Eyes countries-U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand-published a statement on encrypted communications and the problems they cause law enforcement agencies.

The move makes Australia's state the first to be able to break the end-to-end encryption of Whatsapp, with other Western governments including the United Kingdom having shied away from doing so in the face of fierce criticism.

"We think that the bill does need to go forward but we offer to let it go forward without the amendments that are needed, without the amendments that are required to make it conform to the agreement reached between the government and Labor, provided the government agrees next - at the very next sitting day of the parliament to pass the amendments that we say are needed", Dreyfus said at the press conference. Australia's Labor opposition party surprisingly changed course, however, saying that it would back the bill in both chambers, provided that minor amendments are made after the legislation is enacted.

The government said the new measures will help police and security agencies combat terror attacks and child sex crimes, the BBC reported.

Australia's bill has security and privacy advocates anxious, especially in light of continued calls for similar legislation in the United States and other countries.

Australia flag parliament government
First Western World Country Passes Law Forcing Encryption Backdoors

Under Australia's legislation, the police can force companies to create a technical function that would give them access to encrypted messages without the user's knowledge. Instead, proposed amendments will be discussed in the New Year.

Eric Wenger, director of cybersecurity and privacy policy for the USA technology giant Cisco Systems, warned during debate on the bill that Australia could be at a competitive disadvantage if its data were not regarded as secure.

"Several critical issues remain unaddressed in this legislation, most significantly the prospect of introducing systemic weaknesses that could put Australians' data security at risk".

How technology companies will be expected to comply with technical assistance requests or warrants resulting from the new law is the big question.

Other Labor MPs including Anthony Albanese, Peter Khalil, Pat Conroy and Terri Butler share concerns about the encryption laws.

Law enforcers have been "going blind or going deaf" because of encryption, he said. Liberal lawmakers contended that the new powers were needed to protect Australians over the Christmas holidays, a soft intimation of a pending security threat.

"I thought it was important that we reach at least a sensible conclusion before the summer on the important matter of national security", he told reporters.

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