Social media giants will be compelled to pass encrypted messages on to Australian security agencies under new laws introduced by the Turnbull government on Friday.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the new laws were needed to target terrorists, paedophile rings and organised crime gangs.
Similar laws already affected telecommunications companies, he said.
“We have the right now to get the cooperation from the telephone companies. What we don’t have is the legal right to get that sort of cooperation from the internet companies like Facebook, or WhatsApp, or Telegram and so forth, and Google,” Mr Turnbull told Channel Seven’s Sunrise program.
He said the legal system needed to catch up with technological changes.
“We cannot allow the internet to be used as a place for terrorists and child molesters and people who peddle child pornography and drug traffickers to hide in the dark.
“Those dark places online must be illuminated by the law.
“I’m not talking about giving intelligence agencies backdoors or anything underhand. This is simply saying the rule of law must prevail online as it does offline.”
Attorney-General George Brandis told ABC Radio he’d been assured it was feasible to seize encrypted messages from WhatsApp or Signal.
“What this does is merely contemporise for the modern era what is a well-established legal principle, and that is persons, including companies, can be subject to an obligation to assist law enforcement in resolving crimes and that principle shouldn’t depend upon the nature of the technology,” Senator Brandis said.
“What we are proposing to do, if we can’t get the voluntary cooperation that we are seeking, is to extend the existing law that says to individuals, citizens and to companies, in certain circumstances you have an obligation to assist law enforcement if it’s within your power to do so.
“The laws that exist at the moment predate the development of encryption, all we are seeking to do is to apply an existing principle to a new technology.”
Senator Brandis said he would introduce the laws between now and the end of the year.
— Sky News Australia (@SkyNewsAust) July 13, 2017
He told Sky News the proposed laws had “nothing to do with mass surveillance” and most Australians would not be impacted.
“It is not mass surveillance and it’s not going to make their everyday dealings in social media insecure,” Senator Brandis said.
“The fact is that information security is a very high value. It is an economic benefit. It matters to people and the Government is determined to protect it.
“But having said that, there is also an important value to be served in protecting national security.”
A Facebook spokesperson told The New Daily: “We appreciate the important work law enforcement does, and we understand their need to carry out investigations.
“That’s why we already have a protocol in place to respond to requests where we can.
“At the same time, weakening encrypted systems for them would mean weakening it for everyone.”
David Glance, Director of the University of Western Australia Centre for Software Practice, said it was not known how the proposed laws would work.
He said weakening encryptions gave Australians legitimate cause for concern about what it could mean for them.
Criminals and hackers could “exploit weakened security to snoop, steal intellectual property, identities and other things.
“Obviously there is a contradiction in their attempts to increase cybersecurity against nation state attacks and at the same time, weakening encryption to allow them to access anyone’s communications. They can’t have it both ways,” Dr Glance said.
“There is obviously the debate about whether this will really help them in any event … Plus, they are [already] able to hack people’s devices, get metadata, et cetera. So the question is why isn’t that enough?”
Robert Merkel, a Software Engineering expert at Monash University, said he did not know what the government expected from the social media giants.
There were “real technical and mathematical barriers” to the government’s plan, Dr Merkel said.
Mr Turnbull seemed unphased by similar lines of questions on Friday.
“The laws of mathematics are very commendable but the only laws that apply in Australia is the law of Australia,” the Prime Minister told reporters.
Dr Merkel said added that people “determined” to communicate outside of the government’s watch could find other ways to do so.
Anthony Albanese told Nine Network Labor would consider the legislation.
The government push follows the G20 Leaders summit in Germany where Australia led the way on discussions about encrypted technology.
More than half of investigations by domestic intelligence agency ASIO now involved encrypted communications, compared to three per cent four years ago.
An Australian Federal Police officer last year accessed an investigative journalist’s call records without a warrant.
The New Daily has contacted Greens spokesperson for communications Senator Scott Ludlam for comment.