New anti-encryption law could force Facebook and Google to hand over data

The Australian government wants to introduce laws that would force tech companies to share private messages with authorities, marking the latest move in an international battle over encryption rights. 

Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Friday that a law modelled on the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act would be necessary in order to curb the growing use of social media as means for terrorists and criminals to communicate.

The proposed law would oblige technology companies to assist security forces in their investigations, although warrants would still be needed to access communications. This includes social media companies such as Facebook and Google, but also device manufacturers like Apple and Samsung.

“We need to ensure that the internet is not used as a dark place for bad people to hide their criminal activities from the law,” said Turnbull, speaking to Guardian reporters. “The reality is, however, that these encrypted messaging applications and voice applications are being used obviously by all of us, but they’re also being used by people who seek to do us harm.”

When asked how the new law would prevent users opting for third-party encryption software, such as virtual private networks (VPNs), Turnbull said: “The laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that. The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only laws that apply in Australia is the law of Australia.”

Australia faces the same criticism levied at the UK government following the London terrorist attack when Home Secretary Amber Rudd demanded WhatsApp give police agencies access to user messages – forcing social media giants to create encryption back doors for law enforcement would in effect create back doors for cybercriminals as well. Turnbull denied that the proposed law would involve the use of these, however.

“A back door is typically a flaw in a software program that perhaps the developer of the software program is not aware of, and that somebody who knows about it can exploit,” said Turnbull. “We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about lawful access.”

Facebook has already spoken out against the news saying it already has a system for co-operating with security forces, and that the proposed law would be impossible to impose on individual users.

“Weakening encrypted systems for them would mean weakening it for everyone,” said Facebook spokesperson Antonia Sanda, speaking to Reuters.

Australia’s stance is shared by a number of other countries, including France and Britain, which have expressed a commitment to ensuring security agencies are able to access encrypted messages. However, proposed legislation from the European Union seeks to take the opposite approach, by making end-to-end encryption compulsory for all forms of digital communication. The draft proposal would prevent service providers from accessing encryption keys and render it impossible for companies to ‘hand over’ messages to security forces.

Earlier this week, the former head of GCHQ defended end-to-end encryption, calling it an “overwhelmingly good thing” and criticised the idea of creating “backdoors” for authorities.  

“You can’t uninvent end-to-end encryption […] you can’t just do away with it,” Robert Hannigan told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “The best you can do is work with the companies that operate it to find a way around it. Building in backdoors is a threat to everybody. It’s not a good idea to weaken security for everybody to tackle a minority.”

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