Australia set to spy on WhatsApp messages with encryption law

08 December, 2018, 08:15 | Author: Regina Silva
  • Under the legislation police and intelligence agencies can force technology firms including Facebook and WhatsApp to remove encrypted protection for people under investigation

The Australian government's cyber security adviser Alastair MacGibbon said on Wednesday that authorities had been able to intercept telephone communications lawfully for nearly 40 years, and needed new powers to keep pace with modern technology.

The Australian Parliament passed a bill this week obliging tech firms like Google, Facebook and Apple to turn over encrypted data sought in police investigations, Reuters reports.

A controversial bill allowing spies and police to snoop on the encrypted communications of suspected terrorists and criminals was passed in Australia on Thursday, as tech giants warned of wide-ranging implications for global cybersecurity. Although the new law requires companies to provide technical assistance and access to target communications, it does not have any language that would require vendors to build backdoors in encryption systems.

But the main opposition Labor party said on Thursday the bill could undermine data security and jeopardise future information sharing with authorities in the United States.

The government said the new measures will help police and security agencies combat terror attacks and child sex crimes, the BBC reported.

Critics anxious that software vendors would be forced to put "backdoors", or secret access methods, into their products, which could be discovered and exploited by cybercriminals or nation-states (see: Tech Companies Bristle at Australia's Crypto Legislation).

This makes Australia the first Western nation to breach the last bastion of online privacy, namely encryption.

Under Australia's legislation, police can force companies to create a technical function that would give them access to encrypted messages without the user's knowledge. Amid protests from companies such as Facebook and Google, the government and main opposition struck a deal on Tuesday that should see the legislation passed by parliament this week.

As MPs filed out of Parliament House, Coalition members expressed their "disappointment", while Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese blasted the bill as "nonsense legislation" that the government "still hadn't got right".

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Unsurprisingly, tech companies have decried the new laws.

Law enforcers have been "going blind or going deaf" because of encryption, he said.

Mr Husic said this week's outcome was "not a flawless endpoint" and "there will be people who wonder why we did what we did".

Australia may not be one of Apple's biggest markets, but that doesn't mean that this new law might not cause problems.

Other Labor MPs including Anthony Albanese, Peter Khalil, Pat Conroy and Terri Butler share concerns about the encryption laws.

"Several critical issues remain unaddressed in this legislation, most significantly the prospect of introducing systemic weaknesses that could put Australians' data security at risk".

"But I wasn't prepared to walk away from my job and leave matters in a stand-off and expose Australians to increased risk in terms of national security".

"I think it's detrimental to Australian and world security, " said Bruce Schneier, a tech security expert affiliated with Harvard University and IBM.

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