Federal Govt releases proposed reform to access encrypted communications

Could it undermine Australian citizens' privacy?

Angus Taylor (Minister for Law Enforcement and Cyber Security)

Angus Taylor (Minister for Law Enforcement and Cyber Security)

The Federal Government has published the changes it proposes in order to access encrypted communications, designed to allow law enforcement agencies to access data necessary to conduct investigations and gather evidence.

The exposure draft of the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 (the Bill) published on 14 August was drafted by the Department of Home Affairs in cooperation with Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

The bill proposes three reforms, including enhancing the obligations of domestic providers to give reasonable assistance to Australia’s key law enforcement and security agencies and, for the first time, extending assistance obligations to offshore providers supplying communications services and devices in Australia.

Furthermore, the bill also proposes introducing new computer access warrants for law enforcement that will enable them to covertly obtain evidence directly from a device, while strengthening the ability of law enforcement and security authorities to overtly access data through the existing search and seizure warrants.

Minister for Law Enforcement and Cyber Security Angus Taylor said technologies including encryption are increasingly being used by paedophiles, terrorists and organised criminals to conceal their illicit activities.

"We know that more than 90 per cent of data lawfully intercepted by the Australian Federal Police now uses some form of encryption," Taylor said.

"This has directly impacted around 200 serious criminal and terrorism-related investigations in the last 12 months alone. We must ensure our laws reflect the rapid take-up of secure online communications by those who seek to do us harm."

Taylor said the reform will allow access to "specific communications" without compromising the security of a network

"The measures expressly prevent the weakening of encryption or the introduction of so-called backdoors," he added. "I am committed to maintaining the integrity of Australians' personal information, devices and communications.

"Our first priority is keeping Australians safe and these measures will go a long way to ensure that criminals cannot hide."

However, Senator Jordon Steele-John of the Greens sees this as a move to undermine the point of end-to-end encryption and the privacy of every single Australian’s personal information online.

"This new legislation, the likes of which we have been expecting for some time, is a direct response to people wanting to keep their personal and private data safe and it is a massive over-reach by this government," he added.

"Regardless of what Minister Taylor claims, installing software or legislating some other means to capture data as it is unencrypted on the receiving device undermines the very principle of end-to-end-encryption.

"Installing malware on people’s devices to read encrypted data is not a solution to catching criminals but it is weakening the defences of every single device that receives encrypted messages, therefore making it easier for criminals who want to steal data."

Members of the public can comment on the exposure draft via email until 10 September.

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