- Australia has just passed new laws which give authorities unprecedented access to encrypted messaging, setting a dangerous precedent for governments around the world.
- The Assistance and Access Bill gives law enforcement access to encrypted information under the umbrella of national security.
- But many are worried that the bill could give the government “back door” access to personal information, which could weaken digital security around the world.
Australia on Thursday evening passed new laws which give authorities unprecedented access to encrypted messaging, setting a dangerous precedent for governments around the world.
The laws, passed late Thursday, would allow police and intelligence agencies to force tech companies to help crack encrypted messages on services like WhatsApp during their investigations into criminal activity.
Australia is now the first in the world to impose broad encryption-access laws on technology providers.
The “Assistance and Access” bill gives law enforcement access to encrypted information under the umbrella of national security. The legislation now gives agencies the ability to covertly obtain sensitive information directly from any device once they’re granted a warrant.
A fine of up to AU$10 million ($7.2 million) was previously set for institutions that did not comply with the authorities’ demands for access to information.
The move follows a deal struck between the Labor and the Coalition parties on Tuesday, in which Labor wanted to ensure that authorities could only use their new powers to investigate serious crimes like terrorism and child-sex offenses. But Australia Attorney-General Christian Porter ultimately said Labor compromised, adding in lesser crimes like drug and gun violence.
In a surprise move, Labor Party leader Bill Shorten said his party would reluctantly pass the laws with the new changes they requested to be added in the next year.
“We are not going to sacrifice the security of Australians,” he said in a press conference. “We are not going to go home and leave the Australian people on their own over Christmas with inferior laws of national safety.”
The federal government has defended the new laws, warning that 95% of criminal activity was conducted using encrypted messaging apps.
Tech giants around the world say the move sets a dangerous precedent
Global tech giants like Apple, Facebook, and Amazon have previously condemned the measure, citing potential risks to digital security.
Companies have expressed concern that the power would require communications providers to create a new capability — or a “back door” — in order to enable investigators to obtain encrypted evidence. This “back door” access could weaken encryption technology and set a dangerous precedent for governments around the world.
“Any kind of attempt by interception agencies, as they are called in the bill, to create tools to weaken encryption is a huge risk to our digital security,” Lizzie O’Shea, a spokeswoman for the Alliance for a Safe and Secure Internet, told Reuters in October.
The Law Council of Australia expressed some doubt about the new law.
“The half-amended encryption access laws rammed through the Senate are better than the original, but serious concerns remain,” Law Council president Morry Bailes told the Australian Broadcasting Company.
Suelette Dreyfus, a cybersecurity and privacy researcher at the University of Melbourne, told 10 Daily that allowing any access to encrypted data could fuel malicious activity.
“There will be smart criminals who will find and use these backdoors in all sorts of dangerous ways,” she said.
Tech companies have refused to unlock encrypted messages in the past, even in matters of national security, because of the global implications of the action.
In 2016, Apple refused to unlock an iPhone used by one of the assailants in the December 2015 San Bernardino shooting, resulting in a court case between the FBI and Apple. Apple argued that the move could weaken encryption as a whole and jeopardize individual security.
Lawmakers also criticized the move and claimed the FBI didn’t exhaust all of its tools to try and unlock the phone. The FBI eventually dropped its claim and ended up paying just under $1 million to a contractor in order to access the technology.