Australia plans law to force tech giants to decrypt messages
CANBERRA, Australia — The Australian government on Friday proposed a new cyber security law to force global technology companies such as Facebook and Google to help police by unscrambling encrypted messages sent by suspected extremists and other criminals.
The new law would be modeled on Britain’s Investigatory Powers Act, which was passed by the British Parliament in November and gave intelligence agencies some of the most extensive surveillance powers in the Western world, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said.
The Australian bill that would allow courts to order tech companies to quickly unlock communications will be introduced to Parliament by November, Attorney-General George Brandis said.
Turnbull said under the law internet companies would have the same obligations telephone companies do to help law enforcement agencies. Law enforcement agencies would need warrants to access the communications.
“We’ve got a real problem in that the law enforcement agencies are increasingly unable to find out what terrorists and drug traffickers and pedophile rings are up to because of the very high levels of encryption,” Turnbull told.
“Where we can compel it, we will, but we will need the cooperation from the tech companies,” he added.
The government expected resistance from some tech companies, many of them based in the United States. But the companies “know morally they should” cooperate,” Turnbull said.
“There is a culture, particularly in the United States, a very libertarian culture, which is quite anti-government in the tech sector,” Turnbull said.
“I’m not suggesting this … is an easy nut to crack,” he added.
Brandis described the growth of encrypted communication applications such as WhatsApp, Signal, Facebook Messenger and iMessage as “potentially the greatest degradation of intelligence and law enforcement capability that we have seen in our lifetime.”
Brandis said he met the British government’s chief cryptographer last week and believed it was technically possible to decode encrypted messages in a time frame that police needed to act.
This could be achieved without so-called back doors — built-in weaknesses that allowed a tech company access to a communication but could also leave it vulnerable to hackers, Brandis said.
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mike Phelan said the proportion of communication traffic monitored by Australian police that was encrypted had grown from 3 percent to more than 55 percent in only a few years.
He said 65 percent of organized crime investigations including terrorism and pedophile rings involved some kind of encryption.