Government appears intent on fast-tracking encryption bill

Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security accepting submissions until 12 October

The government appears set on swift passage through parliament of the Telecommunication and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018, which Canberra argues is vital to helping police and intelligence agencies mitigate the impact of encrypted communications services on their investigations.

The government late last week introduced the bill into the House of Representatives, just 10 days after closing a public consultation on an exposure draft of the proposed legislation.

A number of measures in the bill will increase police access to data on electronic devices and services — including expanding the system of covert computer access warrants, which are currently available only to ASIO.

The provisions in the bill that have drawn the most concern from civil liberties organisations and the tech industry are those that would introduce new requirements for service providers to cooperate with investigations. In some cases, tech companies could be compelled to build entirely new capabilities sought by police or intelligence agencies.

On Friday, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) launched its review of the bill — almost certainly the last stop for the proposed legislation before the lower house votes on it.

“Australian national security and law enforcement agencies are facing increasing difficulties in accessing encrypted communications that mask a variety of illegal activities,” the committee’s chair, Andrew Hastie, said in a statement.

“The bill provides national security and law enforcement agencies with powers to respond to the challenges posed by the increasing use of encrypted communications and devices.”

“In its inquiry, the committee will consider and review the provisions of the bill,” Hastie said. “In addition the committee will examine safeguards and limitations in the Bill that are intended to ensure that communications providers cannot be compelled to build systemic weaknesses or vulnerabilities into their products that undermine the security of communications.”

The committee said it will accept submissions on the bill until 12 October.

Labor MPs have expressed alarm at how quickly the government introduced a bill following its consultation on the exposure draft.

“It is simply implausible that Peter Dutton could have in such a short timeframe given due consideration to the widespread concerns when dealing with encryption that raised by industry and other stakeholders,” said a statement from shadow attorney-general and shadow national security minister Mark Dreyfus, shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland, and shadow digital economy minister Ed Husic.

 “This legislation was first foreshadowed by the former prime minister and former attorney-general more than a year ago,” a government spokesperson last week told Computerworld in response.

“Since that time the legislation was developed in consultation with industry. The industry consultations led to development of the exposure draft which went out for public consideration in August.”

The parliamentary inquiry will allow further public consultation, the spokesperson said.

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