Government prepares for assault on encryption before the end of the year

New laws to hit parliament this year

The government has indicated it is preparing to introduce laws before the end of the year that will compel Internet companies and providers of encrypted communications services to cooperate with law enforcement and national security agencies.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told Channel 7’s Sunrise program that Australia needs to “modernise” its laws to deal with the use of online services by terrorists, child molesters and drug traffickers.

“I’m not talking about giving intelligence agencies backdoors or anything underhand,” Turnbull said. “This is simply saying the rule of law must prevail online as it does offline.”

“We cannot allow the Internet to be used as a place for terrorists, and child molesters, and people who peddle child pornography and drug traffickers to hide in the dark,” Turnbull said. “Those dark places online must be illuminated by the law.”

The government wants to be able to compel cooperation from “the Internet companies like a Facebook or a WhatsApp or a Telegram and so forth and Google,” Turnbull said.

Turnbull cited the G20 communique on terrorism, which said the G20’s member governments will work “with the private sector, in particular communication service providers and administrators of relevant applications, to fight exploitation of the internet and social media for terrorist purposes such as propaganda, funding and planning of terrorist acts, inciting terrorism, radicalizing and recruiting to commit acts of terrorism, while fully respecting human rights.”

“Appropriate filtering, detecting and removing of content that incites terrorist acts is crucial in this respect,” the communique said.

The G20 governments will encourage collaboration with industry “to provide lawful and non-arbitrary access to available information where access is necessary for the protection of national security against terrorist threats.”

Beyond swift action to remove material associated with terrorist groups, the government is yet to reveal details on what kind of cooperation they expect from providers of ‘over the top’ services.

However in a London speech earlier this month Turnbull asked why the operators of encrypted messaging platforms such as “WhatsApp, Telegram or Signal” are “able to establish end-to-end encryption in such a way that nobody, not the owners and not the courts have the ability to find out what is being communicated”.

The implication would seem to be that an operator of an encrypted communications service would need to have a software architecture that allows it to decrypt a user’s communication; such a move would run the risk of weakening the security of a service for all users.

“If it was legally, morally, ethically appropriate for unencrypted, private communications to be accessed by lawful means and under warrant before in order to keep the community safe, why has everything changed because a new encryption technology has been developed?” Attorney-General George Brandis this morning told Sky News.

“Nothing has changed. Communications do have to be accessed by intelligence and law enforcement in certain defined circumstances and under warrant in order to investigate and protect us against terrorism planning, to investigate and break up organised crime gangs, to investigate and break up paedophile rings.”

It’s “not good enough” for “anyone to hide behind the fact that there is a new technology that enables these communications to be encrypted, to say I’m sorry we’re not prepared to cooperate with you,” the attorney-general said.

Brandis told ABC Radio’s AM: “What we would do is we would apply to internet companies, to device makers essentially the same obligations that apply under the existing law, to enable provision of assistance to law enforcement and to the intelligence agencies where it is necessary to deal with issues of terrorism, with serious organised crime, with paedophile networks and so on.”

The government doesn’t “propose to require backdoors as they’re sometimes called,” Brandis said but added there “is a debate about what is and is not a backdoor”.

“What we are proposing to do, if we can’t get the voluntary cooperation that we are seeking, is to extend the existing law that says to individuals, citizens and to companies, that in certain circumstances you have an obligation to assist law enforcement if it’s within your power to do so.”

The government is expected to reveal more details on its proposals later today.

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