Five Eyes nations' ministers and attorney-generals have “committed to develop our engagement with communications and technology companies to explore shared solutions” around the encrypted content of communications sent by criminals.
This will be done while “upholding cybersecurity and individual rights and freedoms” a joint communique issued following two days of talks in Ottawa, Canada noted.
Despite being a key topic for the Australian government in recent weeks – spoken about by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in his security statement to the House of Representative earlier this month, and in numerous TV and radio interviews by Brandis – it appears cracking encryption may be less of a priority for the other Five Eyes member nations (the US, UK, New Zealand and Canada).
It was mentioned in just two sentences in the official communique, coming at the very end of the description of topics discussed.
In a press release following the meeting, New Zealand Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson made no mention of the discussion around encryption. The UK government’s press release about the meeting focused on urging internet providers to remove terrorist content online and made no mention of encryption.
A release from US Attorney Jeff Sessions following the meeting noted that encryption had been a topic of discussion, but was concentrated on preventing radicalisation and human trafficking.
The Canadian government had made no official statement beyond the communique at the time of publication.
Not about creating backdoors
Speaking on ABC’s RN Breakfast on Wednesday, Brandis said the nations had agreed to “engage with ISPs and device makers to ensure that we secure from them the greatest possible level of cooperation” but denied this amounted to forcing them to build backdoors into their products.
“What we need is to develop, and what we'll be asking the device makers and the ISPs to agree to, is a series of protocols as to the circumstances to which they will be able to provide voluntary assistance to law enforcement,” he said.
“We're not specifically asking them to do that [build in backdoors] and it’s not as simple as that,” he added.
Brandis’ reassurances around backdoors echoes those made by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull earlier this month.
“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.”
Encrypted communications represent a challenge for government’s hoping to thwart terrorist plots and criminals, the communique noted.
“Ministers and Attorneys General also noted that encryption can severely undermine public safety efforts by impeding lawful access to the content of communications during investigations into serious crimes, including terrorism,” it read.
It is unclear how the Australian government expects ISPs and device-makers to assist in investigations and provide access to encrypted communications without building backdoors into their products.
Brandis said the government will be meeting with the private sector in the coming months to discuss options.
“We want to engage with the private sector, to achieve a set of voluntary solutions,” he told the ABC.
Brandis said he did not want to resort to the coercive powers which had been legislated by the UK and New Zealand.
Late last year the UK introduced its Investigatory Powers Act, which allows the government to compel communications providers to remove “electronic protection applied…to any communications or data”.
The government’s power to force the removal of encryption, the legislation notes, must be “reasonable” and “practicable”; caveats that are yet to be tested.
The so-called ‘Snoopers Charter’ passed into law in December, but is being hampered by the European Court of Justice which deemed it unlawful.