Controversial anti-encryption laws rushed through by Australian Government

Darnell Taylor
December 8, 2018

These can require communication providers to use an interception technology they already have.

The benignly named Assistance and Access Bill of 2018 amends various existing legislation to "establish frameworks for voluntary and mandatory industry assistance [italics own] to law enforcement and intelligence agencies in relation to encryption technologies..."

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.

Governments and law enforcement agencies have long called for measures that would enable them to decode encrypted communications when needed.

However, the Parliament ended up passing the bill as it is on its last day before the summer break.

"We're prepared to let it go forward on that basis knowing there's more work to be done", Labor leader Bill Shorten told reporters, according to the report.

Under the law, Australian security services can force local and worldwide communications giants such as Google, Facebook or WhatsApp to remove encryption, help hide government snooping and hand over data linked to suspected illegal activities.

Critics anxious that software vendors would be forced to put "backdoors", or secret access methods, into their products, which could be discovered and exploited by cybercriminals or nation-states (see: Tech Companies Bristle at Australia's Crypto Legislation).

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Both the legislation in general and the government's rush to pass it before Christmas generated significant alarm among privacy advocates, tech companies and representatives of the legal profession, with concerns that it could undermine security of online communications services. USA law enforcement officials, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, are again pushing for legislation that would somehow give authorities access to secure communications.

But under pressure from the opposition, the bill will also now include further scrutiny of the laws in 2019, limiting the powers to only "serious offences" and defining the term "systemic weakness".

Australia's ABC News notes that, before this, the Australian government already had the power to "obtain remote access to computer networks and their data" and "in some circumstances, law enforcement can also compel people under threat of jail time to disclose their computer or smartphone passwords".

"It's not just the rights of citizens that are potentially compromised by this outcome, but intelligence agencies and law enforcement that are at risk of acting unlawfully", said council president Morry Bailes in a statement.

The Coalition government, under Prime Minister Scott Morrison of the Liberal Party, had expressed a desire to see the legislation passed this year, contending that a delay could put the public at risk.

Tech giants have also slammed the new law.

The suspect would not even know if they're being spied on because the company can not tell anyone.

"I think it's detrimental to Australian and world security, " said Bruce Schneier, a tech security expert affiliated with Harvard University and IBM.

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