Australia passes sweeping anti-encryption legislation

Australian MPs during a session on the Encryption Bill in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra yesterday. Critics have warned the legislation could undermine security across the Internet, jeopardising activities from online vo
Australian MPs during a session on the Encryption Bill in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra yesterday. Critics have warned the legislation could undermine security across the Internet, jeopardising activities from online voting to market trading.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

CANBERRA • Australia's Parliament passed some of the world's toughest anti-encryption legislation yesterday, installing a Bill that seeks to force Facebook and other tech giants to help decode messages used in terrorism and organised crime.

Under new powers to be given to police and intelligence agencies, companies may be required to help decrypt communications on platforms such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal, and even insert code to help capture data.

The Bill had support from both major parties and, late yesterday, the opposition Labor Party said it was withdrawing amendments it had previously demanded. That allowed the Upper House to vote in support of the legislation, meaning it becomes law.

The new law thrusts Australia to the centre of a global battle between tech companies and governments over privacy and security.

In 2016, Britain gave the authorities powers to intercept and retain the communications of British citizens, while China's Cyber Security Law requires Internet operators to cooperate with criminal and national security investigations.

"There has been similar legislation in the UK and possibly a few other jurisdictions but their legislation doesn't go anywhere near as far as what's happening here," said Mr Mark Gregory, an associate professor specialising in network engineering and Internet security at Melbourne's RMIT University.

The Australian government "can coerce the company to actually provide backdoors into their systems and into devices and force the company to build systems that can help with investigations".

In arguing for the legislation, Prime Minister Scott Morrison's government said 95 per cent of people being monitored by security agencies use encrypted messages.

The technology has resulted in law enforcers effectively "going blind or going deaf", according to Mr Alastair MacGibbon, the government's cyber security adviser.

The Digital Industry Group, an association whose members include Facebook and Google, campaigned against the legislation in a loose alliance with Amnesty International and the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre.

Critics warned the legislation could undermine security across the Internet, jeopardising activities from online voting to market trading and data storage.

The legislation will be subject to a review by a parliamentary committee for 12 months. The new powers will be limited to tackling serious crimes. Many technology companies began to add encryption to their products after former US government contractor Edward Snowden exposed the extent of US spying in 2013. But that has left security agencies facing an uphill struggle to keep up with new technology.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2018, with the headline 'Australia passes sweeping anti-encryption legislation'. Print Edition | Subscribe