POLITICS

Government Will Force Tech Companies To Decrypt Encrypted Messages

The plan is still light on detail, however.

14/07/2017 9:45 AM AEST | Updated 14/07/2017 9:45 AM AEST
Phil Noble / Reuters

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has confirmed the Government will introduce laws forcing tech companies like Apple, Facebook and Whatsapp to decrypt encrypted messages and cooperate with law enforcement in investigations of terrorism and crime.

The Government has been talking tough around encrypted messaging apps like Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger, which have been used by terrorists and criminals to send messages which can't be cracked. Encrypted messaging in this context means that a message can only be read by by someone with the "key" of either the sender or recipient, the idea being that nobody else, not even the Government or even the service provider itself, can decrypt those messages.

In the wake of recent terror attacks in London and Manchester, and the Brighton siege gunman claiming to have acted in support of ISIS and al-Qaeda, the government has been talking up the need for law enforcement to have access to such encrypted messages, in the same way that police can gain access to phone and internet records, metadata or other information through search warrants.

Such campaigns to force tech companies to cooperate with police investigations have been running since at least the San Bernardino shooting in 2015, when the FBI asked Apple to help it unlock a mobile phone owned by one of the suspects in the case.

Last week, Turnbull blasted tech companies which had "created messaging applications...being used by terrorists and criminals to hide their murderous plans," and on Friday, he confirmed the Government would soon introduce laws forcing those companies to co-operate with law enforcement.

"We have the ability right now to get the information from the telcos, what we don't have is the legal right to get that from internet companies and from Whatsapp or Facebook or Google. What we need to do is modernise our laws so that these places are not available for terrorists and drug traffickers and paedophiles," Turnbull told Sunrise.

The PM did not give any specific information on how the laws would work, or what specifically those companies would be compelled to do, but he again said: "I'm not talking about giving intelligence agencies backdoors or anything underhand", referring to the ability of tech companies to insert secret ways of bypassing normal authentication or encryption into their own applications.

Attorney-General George Brandis gave a little more information on the changes. He said law enforcement would require a warrant to ask for messages to be decrypted, and that the laws are planned to be introduced by the end of the year.

"The internet is not an ungoverned space," he said on Sky News. "The rule of law has to apply as much online as in everyday life."

"It's not good enough for anyone to hide behind the fact 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'."

Brandis said the Government would attempt to work with the tech companies to set out new guidelines for sharing information, but that new laws would be introduced if necessary. He told the ABC the Government's "very strong first preference" was for companies to voluntarily offer information, but that the Government would have the power to force companies to help investigations.

"All we're seeking to do is apply existing legal principles to a new technology," he said.

"This is not mass surveillance and will not make people's every day dealings online insecure."

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