Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said his government’s effort to access encrypted communications is “not about creating or exploiting back doors”.
In a national security statement today, Turnbull said that encrypted messaging apps were frequently used by “criminals and terrorists” but “at the moment, much of this traffic is difficult for our security agencies to decrypt”.
Citing the dispute between Apple and the FBI in which the FBI sought to force Apple to unlock an iPhone belonging to an individual responsible for the mass shooting in San Bernadino, California in 2015, Turnbull said: “The privacy of a terrorist can never be more important than public safety – never”.
Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis have indicated they intend to introduce new laws to compel encrypted messaging apps to give access to security agencies.
On Sunday, Brandis indicated the government wants to impose “obligations of cooperation upon the corporates” behind popular encrypted communications services.
“My concern is the existing laws ... don't go far enough…” Brandis told Sky News on Sunday.
The Attorney-General will travel to Canada in two weeks for a meeting with security and intelligence officials from Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States – Five Eyes – to “discuss what more can be done among our like-minded nations and with the communications and technology industry to ensure that terrorists and organised criminals are not able to operate with impunity in ungoverned digital spaces online,” Turnbull said.
“This is not about creating or exploiting back doors, as some privacy advocates continue to say, despite constant reassurance from us. It is about collaboration with and assistance from industry in the pursuit of public safety,” Turnbull told the House of Representatives.
The Prime Minister emphasised that the government sought to strike a balance between individual liberties and community safety.
“Online civil society is as achievable as an offline one, and the rights and protections of the vast, overwhelming majority of Australians, must outweigh the rights of those who will do them harm,” he said.
Keys to the backdoor
It is as yet unclear exactly how the government hopes to access encrypted communications sent on apps such as Signal, Wickr and WhatsApp. Those companies don’t themselves have access to the communications sent over their platforms and are mostly located in the US, creating significant technical and jurisdictional challenges.
Brandis told The Age on Sunday that one method could be to “improve warrant-based access to communications at the sender or receiver ends”.
Critics have argued that moves to force messaging app companies to provide assistance in accessing decrypted messages would mean they would have to build in access points – backdoors – into their products. As the Guardian’s Paul Farrell put it yesterday: “That’s not just a backdoor – that’s more like a giant sinkhole that your backdoor fell into”.
Turnbull countered the criticism today, saying: “This is not about creating or exploiting back doors, as some privacy advocates continue to say, despite constant reassurance from us. It is about collaboration with and assistance from industry in the pursuit of public safety.”
It seems likely that Labor will support the government in its push for access to encrypted messages.
Following Turnbull’s speech, Labor leader Bill Shorten said: “Terrorists are increasingly using this network to avoid detection, conduct planning and acquire capability and tools to carry out their evil actions. We must target this threat head-on.
“As terrorists adapt their methods and seek to hide online, we must ensure our agencies have the tools, resources and technology so terrorism has no place to hide.”
Late last year the UK introduced its Investigatory Powers Act, which allows the government to compel communications providers to remove “electronic protection applied…to any communications or data”.
In the wake of the Manchester terror attack in May, Home Secretary Amber Rudd hinted at new legislation to bolster existing law.
“It is completely unacceptable. There should be no place for terrorists to hide,” Rudd said at the time.
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