11/07/2017 11:38 AM AEST | Updated 11/07/2017 11:38 AM AEST

Turnbull Blasts Messaging App Companies Over Encryption And Terrorism

"You have created messaging applications... used by terrorists and criminals to hide their murderous plans."

Phil Noble / Reuters
Messaging services that provide end-to-end encryption such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are under the spotlight.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has accused major tech companies of harbouring criminals in "dark spaces" on the web, in a bid to force these companies to cooperate with police and terror investigations.

In the latest salvo in his Government's push to force messaging apps like Whatsapp to cooperate with terrorism investigations, Turnbull used a speech to turn the blowtorch directly on the tech companies themselves.

The Federal Government has been talking up new measures to force social media and messaging companies like Facebook and Whatsapp to give law enforcement access to encrypted messages and information -- particularly 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.

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.

"You have created messaging applications which are encrypted end-to-end, they are being used by terrorists and criminals to hide their murderous plans," Turnbull said in a speech in London overnight, appealing directly to those companies in arguably his strongest direct attack on encrypted information.

"You must ensure that these dark places can be illuminated by the law so that the freedoms you hold dear will not be stripped away by criminals your technologies have made undetectable."

Encryption -- in the context of social media and messaging apps like Whatsapp, Signal and Telegram -- means that a message can only be read by the person sending it and the person receiving it. Messages can only be read 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.

This approach gives comfort to ordinary users, who can feel at ease knowing their conversations are more protected, but the apps have been used by terrorists and other criminals precisely because of their security features.

At the G20 meeting in Hamburg last week, Turnbull was among the world leaders pushing for a stronger agreement on asking tech companies to cooperate with investigations. In a joint communique following the G20, world leaders said the G20 "expects providers of online communication platforms to delete terrorist information swiftly", while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said encrypted messaging apps were "a major problem" and that "it is necessary to have the tools to better monitor terrorists' communications".

Thomas White / Reuters

"We will work with the private sector, in particular communication service providers and administrators of relevant applications, to fight exploitation of the internet and social media for terrorist purposes... while fully respecting human rights," the communique read.

"In line with the expectations of our peoples we also encourage collaboration with industry to provide lawful and non-arbitrary access to available information where access is necessary for the protection of national security against terrorist threats. We affirm that the rule of law applies online as well as it does offline."

In London, Turnbull continued the rhetoric.

"As our adversaries' methods and tactics evolve, so must ours. The privacy of a terrorist can never be more important than the safety of the public. The information security of a terrorist or child abuser must not be protected above the personal security of our children, communities, values," he said.

"A Government that gets this upside down would be abdicating responsibility; its duty of care to citizens. It certainly would not be helping the cause of freedom."

Turnbull agreed the idea of internet freedom was "important" but that those freedoms must be balanced against community safety.

"We cannot allow ungoverned spaces, whether offline or online, to be exploited by those who would do us harm. The Internet must remain free and secure. But it cannot be ungoverned. Laws offline must apply online. Otherwise, freedom and security will both be lost," he said.

Phil Noble / Reuters
An encryption message is seen on the WhatsApp application on an iPhone

"But here is the bottom line: the best defence against terrorists' plans is good intelligence. We have in the last few years disrupted 12 major terrorists plots, including several that would have resulted in large mass casualty attacks. How many more can we disrupt if every communication, by every conspirator, is encrypted end-to-end and cannot be read despite every lawful right, indeed duty, so to do?"

Turnbull outlined two key areas where greater collaboration between law enforcement, government and tech companies was needed.

"First we need to secure swifter and more effective action by the owners of the big online services, like Facebook, Google and Twitter, to take down extremist material as soon as it appears," he said.

"Second we need to address the problem of encryption. Now encryption is vitally important to protect our security online. But just as a locked bank vault or filing cabinet cannot resist a Court order to produce a document, why should the owners of encrypted messaging platforms like Whatsapp or Telegram or Signal be able to establish end to end encryption in such a way that nobody, not the owners and not the courts have the ability to find out what is being communicated?

"The G20 communique is not talking about giving Governments a backdoor to access messaging, nor is it seeking access to the source code that some countries are demanding of companies for the pleasure of doing business in their jurisdiction. Rather it is saying to Silicon Valley and its emulators -- the ball is in your court. You have created messaging applications which are encrypted end-to-end, they are being used by terrorists and criminals to hide their murderous plans.

"You must ensure that these dark places can be illuminated by the law so that the freedoms you hold dear will not be stripped away by criminals your technologies have made undetectable."

The Government outlined exactly what they hope to do around encrypted messaging, and what actions they will be pushing social media and messaging companies to take. However, with seeming bipartisan support from Labor to crack down on encrypted communications, some change seems inevitable.

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