A year ago, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (pictured above), following several terrorist attacks in Europe that relied on encrypted communications, signaled his intention to pressure Apple, Facebook, Google and other tech companies to grant local security agencies access to their messaging apps.
Fast forward to present day. The issue is escalating. The Australian government this week proposed a wider measure, the Assistance and Access Bill 2018, that will compel technology companies to allow police access to private encrypted data but without building a so-called back door. In the U.S., all three tech giants plus Microsoft have scuffled in one way or another with the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation over law enforcement’s right to private encrypted data in criminal investigations.
Australia's Assistance and Access Bill 2018: The Background
The bill's genesis is the Australian government's contention that criminals are increasingly using messaging services and mobile devices to launch terrorist and drug trafficking activities, with encryption impacting more than 90 percent of national security priority cases. The legislation is aimed at platforms the government believes could be used by criminals and terrorists. Police will still be required to obtain a court warrant to access private encrypted data.
"The exploitation of modern communications technology for illicit ends is a significant obstacle to the lawful access of communications by Australia’s law enforcement and national security agencies," the government said. "Secure, encrypted communications are increasingly being used by terrorist groups and organised criminals to avoid detection and disruption."
On a larger scale, the privacy debate largely revolves around reconciling privacy principles with legitimate law enforcement interests. Could the Australian legislation provide a framework for similar laws in the U.S. that have to this point eluded a consensus in Congress? There’s not much debate over tech’s support role in working with law enforcement to apprehend criminals -- cybersecurity or otherwise. However, there are opposing camps as to how access to private encrypted data should be accommodated.
“There’s no question that terrorists are using encrypted communications to plan violence, precisely because they can’t be tapped the way their phone conversations can,” wrote Robby Mook, who headed the Clinton presidential campaign in 2016, in an opinion column in the U.K.’s Guardian last February. “There’s also no question that the companies producing the hardware and code that enable us to create, encrypt and store data must work with law enforcement to stop malicious actors. But for those companies to simply create a backdoor – a special set of keys that allow law enforcement to unlock encrypted communications of suspected criminals – would be wrong.”
Tech Giants: Mulling Their Options?
In Australia, an industry group that includes Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo have advocated for an open dialogue with the government as the new bill makes its way through parliament, Reuters said.
“Our legislation for telecommunication intercepts, being able to access data, in order to investigate and prosecute criminal activity, with a warrant, is no longer fit for purpose,” Angus Taylor, the minister for law enforcement and cybersecurity, told Reuters. The new law, he said, “makes sure we have legislation fit for purpose in a modern era."