Australia Passes Bill Allowing Government to Bypass Messaging Encryption

Parliament House in Canberra Australia at sunset with dark clouds in the sky

The Access and Assistance Bill gives law enforcement the ability to force technology companies operating in Australia-including Facebook-owned WhatsApp, smartphone makers like Apple, and website owners-to provide access to encrypted messages, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Critics of the bill say it might be abused and Australians' privacy compromised.

Australia already has laws which require providers to hand over a suspect's communication to the police.

"There is an extraterritorial dimension to it, where for example the U.S. would be able to make. a request directly to Australia to get information from Facebook or a tech company", Queensland University of Technology's technology regulation researcher Monique Mann told AFP news agency.

The law "perpetuates the myth that cybersecurity can be broken just a little just for targeted people or technologies", writes Vanessa Teague, an associate professor of cybersecurity at the University of Melbourne, on Twitter. "In many ways, I think it's unworkable".

Australia is the first of the Five Eyes nations, an intelligence alliance among Australia, the U.S, Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, to pass this sort of bill, which is set to become law by the end of this year.

"This was very important legislation to give police and security agencies the ability to get into encrypted communications, " he told Nine Network television.

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"There are legitimate concerns about the encryption legislation", the opposition leader told reporters on Friday. They expect the government to amend the law in February, however.

"There can be only one step after you've compelled the big companies to agree to your back-doors, and that is to criminalize those truly secure services who prefer to follow the "laws of mathematics" instead of "the laws of Australia".

"We now have a situation where unprecedented powers to access encrypted communications are now law, even though parliament knows serious problems exist."

Worldwide privacy groups and tech companies such as Mozilla, Cisco, and Apple have criticised the laws as having the ability to make the entire internet less secure due to the universal nature of the encryption services being used. Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin said it hampers criminal investigations at all levels.

The company's iPhones, due to their strong encryption, are bulwarks of national security around the globe and help protect journalists, human rights workers and people living under repressive regimes. "Every Australian legislator uses the systems and devices that that law will target, and making them insecure seems like a really bad idea".

Technologists say that the mathematics underlying encryption and the way it's encoded into software make it impossible to decrypt a single user's communications without affecting all users. In fact, it has specific language that prevents the government from demanding technology providers introduce a "systemic weakness or systemic vulnerability" into their products in order to provide access for law enforcement.

Labor has agreed to pass the Morrison Government's legislation without amendments, meaning they will be locked-in before Christmas.

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