Published: Fri, December 07, 2018

Australia encrypted data bill passes first hurdle

Australia encrypted data bill passes first hurdle

The Five Eyes intelligence network, comprised of the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, have each warned that national security was at risk because authorities were unable to monitor the communications of suspects.

Australia has passed landmark laws that will give security agencies new powers to force tech companies to write them code to help crack encrypted messages, after Labor dropped last-minute amendments and voted with the Morrison government to pass the controversial bill. The encryption backdoor bill guarantees it will stay that way - every Australian-manufactured IT product must henceforth be regarded with suspicion that any features using encryption will be hopelessly compromised, with a backdoor back to Australian intelligence agencies.

Australian law enforcement representatives unsurprisingly celebrated the parliamentary approval, with Attorney General Christian Porter saying that the opposition Labour Party had "put the safety of Australians above political point-scoring", after initially opposing the legislation.

In the United States, Silicon Valley has so far resisted efforts by USA lawmakers and law enforcement agencies seeking to gain access to the communications of suspects in criminal investigations.

Thursday was the last sitting day for the Australian parliament this year.

When the Federal Bureau of Investigation asked Apple in 2015 to unlock the phone of one of the shooters in the San Bernardino attack, Apple declined, citing the threat of such a back door.

Critics fear the vote sets a risky precedent. Opponents argue it will weaken Australians' online security and privacy.

The Digital Industry Group Inc (DIGI), whose members include Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon and Twitter, said in a statement that the Australian legislation was "out of step" with other countries that had strong national security concerns. While the government claims that it won't be requesting any tech companies to build "systemic weaknesses" into their products (i.e. backdoors), there may be little alternative when it comes to encryption, and the terminology used in the bill has been hotly debated. They say that both initiatives do not necessarily have to contradict each other. Particularly after the surveillance revelations of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, tech firms such as Apple, Google and Facebook have been encrypting more and more devices and apps, in order to convince users that they can communicate safely over them.

The bill provides for fines of up to A$10 million (US$7.2 million) for institutions and prison terms for individuals for failing to hand over data linked to suspected illegal activities.

Earlier in the week, the bill, with some amendments, appeared to have enough support to be passed.

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