Encryption in government’s crosshairs

No backdoors, just front doors, government indicates

The federal government has denied it is interested in forcing companies that offer encrypted communications services to create “backdoors” to allow security agencies access. However, the prime minister and the attorney-general have indicated that they want to strengthen the ability to legally compel a company to assist with decryption.

“We need even stronger cooperation from the big social media and messaging platforms in the fight against terrorism and the extremism which spawns it,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said this morning in a national security statement.

“Encryption, for example, is a vital piece of security for every user of the Internet — protecting all of us as we go about our lives from shopping to banking, to chatting online,” Turnbull told the House of Representatives.

“However, encrypted messaging applications are also used by criminals and terrorists. At the moment, much of this traffic is difficult for our security agencies to decrypt and, indeed, for our Five Eyes partners as well.”

Turnbull cited the example of the legal stoush between Apple and the FBI over attempts to break encryption on an iPhone owned by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino attack in the US.

Turnbull said that Attorney-General George Brandis will later this month attend a meeting in Ottawa, Canada, with his counterparts from the Five Eyes nations and “and discuss what more can be done among our likeminded nations and with the communications and technology industry to ensure that terrorists and organised criminals are not able to operate with impunity in ungoverned digital spaces online”.

“This is not about creating or exploiting back doors, as some privacy advocates continue to say, despite constant reassurance from us,” Turnbull said.

“It is about collaboration with and assistance from industry in the pursuit of public safety.”

Brandis on the weekend told Sky News’ Sunday Agenda that the government was interested in “lifting the legal obligations on device makers and social media companies to cooperate with authorities in decrypting communications.”

The attorney-general cited as an example the technical capability notices issued under UK’s Investigatory Powers Act, which impose a legal obligation for service providers to cooperate with providing access to a communication.

Existing provisions in Australian law “don’t go far enough in imposing obligations of cooperation upon the corporates,” Brandis said.

Turnbull today said that along with the minister assisting the prime minister for cyber security, Dan Tehan, he had established “a taskforce to drive fast action to improve Australia’s capability and response to cyber security and cyber claim threats and incidents”.

“The Wannacry ransomware incident in mid-May was a big wake-up call for many,” Turnbull said.

“We were fortunate not to see the widespread disruption seen in the UK and elsewhere. So this will go strongly with Commonwealths and state and territory governments in bringing forward the new ideas that we need to build nationality capability and capacity.”

In a statement in reply to the PM, opposition leader Bill Shorten said that “encryption technology like WhatsApp and Telegram” allow terrorist groups “to securely communicate not just a message of violence, but instructions on how to carry it out”.

Shorten also said that not enough was known about the use of “the digital currency Bitcoin and the use of the dark web” by terrorist groups.

He described the “dark web”, which typically refers to websites whose physical host is obscured by Tor, as a “network of untraceable online activities and hidden websites, allowing those who wish to stay in the shadows to remain hidden.”

“Terrorists are increasingly using this network to avoid detection, conduct planning and acquire capability and tools to carry out their evil actions,” Shorten said. “We must target this threat head-on. As terrorists adapt their methods and seek to hide online, we must ensure our agencies have the tools, resources and technology so terrorism has no place to hide.”

“We need a renewed focus on cyber threats from attacks on government institutions, breaches of individual privacy and identity theft, industrial espionage and interference in elections,” the Labor leader also said. “And we must ensure that our agencies and security personnel are properly supported, equipped, funded and paid, for the important work they do for all Australians.”

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