POLITICS

Encrypted Messaging Experts Say 'Nope' To Turnbull's Decryption Push

'As soon as you build in a weakness, you put everybody at risk.'

19/07/2017 2:13 PM AEST | Updated 21/07/2017 9:08 AM AEST
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Messaging services and security experts have poured cold water on Malcolm Turnbull's push for tech companies to decrypt information for law enforcement purposes -- because information storage and international laws make it almost impossible to comply.

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.

Last week Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull flagged that the government would introduce new laws to compel tech companies to decrypt their messages.

Dr Greg Austin from the University of NSW School of Cyber Security told the HuffPost Australia that messaging companies and experts held three main objections to the proposed cyber security changes.

"One, the companies claim -- correctly -- they don't have the technology to decrypt. Secondly, their software packages will not fall under the government's remit," he said.

"Acts of terror do not depend on the use of encrypted messaging services."

He also said that even if apps that didn't comply were to be banned, "you don't need an iPhone to encrypt something".

WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, is headquartered in the U.S. -- as is Wickr. Apple has resisted efforts from the FBI to open their iPhone products to law enforcement, while Telegram is based in Berlin.

But perhaps in a sign of how seriously some large tech companies are taking the government's proposal, Apple's top privacy executives have reportedly flown to Australia twice in the past month to lobby the Turnbull government over the looming changes to the governance of encrypted messages.

Tim Gallagher, the founder of the messaging app SafeSwiss, said many messaging apps do not collect any metadata of communications, nor do they even have access at all to the communications due to the nature of encrypted conversations.

This, Gallagher said, is the main sticking point with the government's latest push for tech companies to hand over information exchanged on their platforms to assist with law enforcement efforts.

"The barrier here is not legal, it's more technical. You can't do backdoors. Either these apps are encrypted or they're not," he told HuffPost Australia. "In a sense, the genie is out of the bottle here. As soon as you build in a weakness, you put everybody at risk."

"Either an app is encrypted, or it's not."

Meanwhile Wickr, famously used by Prime Minister Turnbull, in its July 3 Transparency Report said it would never supply law enforcement with subscriber content.

"Our system is designed to protect our users' privacy such that we never have access to our users' decrypted message content so we can't pass it on to anyone else," the report said.

Turnbull, while turning the blowtorch on the messaging companies, said "you have created messaging applications... used by terrorists and criminals to hide their murderous plans".

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