Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has indicated that the government will work with the private sector to counteract the use of encryption technologies by criminals, invoking the now-resolved standoff between Apple and the FBI over the issue.
Apple challenged an FBI-obtained court order that would have forced the company to break the encryption on an iPhone owned by one of the San Bernardino mass shooters. The FBI later backed out of the case, with the law enforcement agency revealing it had found another way to hack the smartphone without Apple’s assistance.
Turnbull touched yesterday on the Apple-FBI conflict during the launch of the government’s national cyber security strategy. The PM mentioned as well the disclosures of US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, who revealed the NSA worked with a number of technology vendors to boost its surveillance efforts.
The strategy states that the government supports the use of encryption to protect sensitive personal, commercial and government information; however, encryption “presents challenges for Australian law enforcement and security agencies in continuing to access data essential for investigations to keep all Australians safe and secure”, the document adds.
“Government agencies are working to address these challenges,” the document states.
“Authorised working relationships between government and certain private sector partners were unfortunately damaged in the release of stolen documents by Edward Snowden; and we recently saw in the exchanges between Apple and the FBI, the difficulty that modern encryption poses for law enforcement,” Turnbull said during the launch of the strategy.
“It is important in healthy democracies to have debates about the balance between civil liberty and national security. Few issues are more important.”
“In certain very specific circumstances, government will work with the private sector, within agreed legal frameworks and appropriate oversight, to fight serious online crime and extremism and to thwart terrorists and others who seek to hide their illegal activities online,” the PM said.
“This will not diminish our responsibility to ensure we are protected from cyber security threats and to ensure that trust and privacy remain paramount in the online environment.”
It is not the first time Turnbull has spoken about the need for law enforcement agencies to be able to counter the use of encryption.
“Rapid developments in communications technology present both opportunities and challenges for our agencies,” the PM said last year during a national security statement to federal parliament following terrorist attacks in Paris.
“Modern messaging and voice applications are generally encrypted in transit.”
“Human intelligence, relationships with communities are more important than ever,” Turnbull said.
“I have, therefore, asked that ASIO and other relevant agencies work with our international intelligence partners to address the challenge of monitoring terrorist groups in this new environment.”
Earlier this year Attorney-General George Brandis weighed into the debate about Apple’s decision to challenge the FBI.
“The particular facts of this case are not facts that would arise in Australia,” Brandis said in February.
“But what I think it does illustrate is at a time when encryption of data is becoming almost ubiquitous and vast quantities of data which would previously have been accessible by warrant to law enforcement agencies, inaccessible, I think it shows how important it is that ISPs do cooperate with law enforcement agencies in facilitating and cooperating with proper investigations into serious crime.”
“My department has established very cooperative and collaborative relationships with companies in the tech-sector and we’re happy with the level of cooperation we are receiving,” Brandis said.
“But nevertheless there is a broader problem for law enforcement, in all jurisdictions frankly, if data is encrypted in a way that is entirely inaccessible without the cooperation of the ISP or the maker of the device, then that makes inaccessible relevant investigative information that would hitherto have been accessible and that’s a problem for law enforcement.”
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