Asia Pacific

Security agencies in Australia using vast decryption powers before planned review


Australian security agencies have begun using sweeping powers to access encrypted communications, even before conducting a promised review to address concerns from the likes of Google, Apple and Facebook.

The powers were granted under a decryption law that was rushed through Parliament in December amid fierce debate over national security and privacy.

The Australian Federal Police have now revealed that agents have already used it while investigating drug trafficking and child exploitation.

Under the rules, refusal to grant authorities access to devices is punishable with up to 10 years in prison. Police told a parliamentary inquiry they had used that threat to compel two suspects to hand over their passwords.

Citing secrecy provisions in the law, police declined to say if they had used the new law to force device makers or telecommunications firms to break or bypass encrypted communications. The same provisions bar industry from disclosing whether they have received such police demands, known as “compulsory notices.”

The government has argued that the law was urgently needed to foil terrorist plots and intercept communications among other serious criminals.

But opponents allege it punches a hole in global efforts to keep governments from eavesdropping on secure communications, like WhatsApp chats.

They also argue it could undermine security by creating vulnerabilities in encryption technologies, which could then be exploited by malicious actors.

The legislation was adopted only after the conservative government agreed to reopen debate in the new year on amendments that would address widespread concerns among civil liberties advocates and tech industry experts that it was ill-conceived and too broad.

The Department of Home Affairs says the law is being progressively implemented and that in January it wrote to tech industry members for assistance in drawing up guidelines on how to use the new powers.

“The department is also engaging with industry to dispel common misconception, build confidence and to reiterate the intended purpose and operation of the act,” it said in a submission to the parliamentary inquiry.

But the tech industry appears far from reassured.

“There is no doubt there is an extremely broad coalition of stakeholders that are very concerned about the impact of this bill,” said John Stanton, chief executive of the Communications Alliance, which represents the Australian communications industry. “It is not just industry, it is civil society and digital rights activists.”

Stanton warned the new law poses “an enormous threat” to export opportunities for Australian tech firms “because they can no longer provide any assurance that their gear hasn’t been tampered with by Australian security.”

“Even to say, ‘No, it hasn’t’ is an offense under the law,” he added.

Industry groups have combined forces to present a joint submission to the latest inquiry proposing a series of amendments.

These include a higher threshold for using the law, which can currently be applied in any investigation of an offense carrying a maximum three-year prison term — a bar that critics say is too low.

The industry also wants more precision about an element of the law barring authorities from forcing companies to introduce a “system vulnerability” into their products — a term they say is ambiguous.

Australia is widely seen as a global test case for such laws, with possible applications by other governments seeking to counter the growing use of encrypted messaging, notably Australia’s partners in the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance: the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

The ongoing review of these powers by parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security may have set an Australian political record. It was launched just nine days after the encryption legislation became law and reflects the haste with which it was rammed through.

The committee must complete its review by April 3, but any moves to amend the legislation risk running up against the electoral cycle, with a federal vote due by mid-May.