The Australian government is planning new laws that will oblige technology and communications companies to decrypt messages sent over their platform, although the proposed legislation stops short of demanding ‘back doors' in encryption.
The measures are outlined in the draft Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018, published on Tuesday.
According to Minister for Law Enforcement and Cyber Security Angus Taylor, the new legislation will "implement measures to address the impact of encrypted communications and devices on national security and law enforcement investigations.
The Bill requires both domestic and foreign companies supplying services to Australia to provide greater assistance
"The bill provides a framework for agencies to work with the private sector so that law enforcement can adapt to the increasingly complex online environment.
"The Bill requires both domestic and foreign companies supplying services to Australia to provide greater assistance to agencies."
The Australian government claims that the new laws are required because police investigations are routinely hampered by encryption, with nine-out-of-ten messages intercepted by the police during investigations protected by some form of encryption.
Rather than explicitly calling for ‘back doors' to be built-in to encryption systems, the Bill calls for the authorities to be able to demand access to messages from technology companies and communications platforms.
Cyber security will be ensured and privacy will be protected through robust safeguards
An Explanatory Document (PDF) published alongside the Bill suggests that "the purpose of the Bill is to allow agencies to seek help from providers, both domestic and offshore, in the execution of their functions. The Bill also provides agencies with alternative-collection powers, allowing them, under warrant, to access devices".
It adds: "The Bill explicitly provides that the new industry assistance powers cannot be used to compel communications providers to build weaknesses into their products. Cyber security will be ensured and privacy will be protected through robust safeguards in the Bill and the existing warrant regime for access to telecommunications content."
Instead, the new Bill will require "domestic providers" to "give reasonable assistance to Australia's key law enforcement and security agencies". For the first time, this obligation will extend to offshore providers "supplying communications services and devices" in Australia.
There will also be new "computer access warrants" for law enforcement that will "enable them to covertly obtain evidence directly from a device".
The third and most impressive tool is a compulsory request called a ‘technical capability notice'
And it will beef-up Australian law enforcement's legal right to "overtly access data" through "existing search and seizure warrants".
However, critics have described the Bill as a "massively concerning and contradictory piece of legislation".
Specialist Australian website BestVPN suggested that the Australian authorities will be trying to perform a "seemingly impossible task".
It continues: "Part 15 of the conflicted surveillance bill proposes three ‘tools' that high-ranking security officials would use to request information from communications providers. The first of these is a voluntary ‘technical assistance request' that encourages tech and telecom firms to hand over the contents of encrypted messages of their own volition…
"The next tool is a ‘technical assistance notice' that forcibly compels firms to cooperate with decrypting messages if they already have the technical capability to do so.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was widely ridiculed for suggesting that the laws of Australia outranked the laws of mathematics.
"The third and most impressive tool is a compulsory request called a ‘technical capability notice'. This warrant would essentially force a 'communications provider' to develop the capability to provide Australian authorities with its desired access to encrypted messages."
The ‘technical capability notice' that will be issued to service providers "is, to all intents and purposes, a request for providers to create a back door into their encryption platforms", it adds, regardless of whatever the government may claim.
And, it added, the idea that technology companies can crack their own encryption without weakening protection in any way is illogical and "technically unfeasible".
Australia's former attorney-general Senator George Brandis QC attracted widespread scorn last year when he suggested that encryption was "impeding lawful access to the content of communications".
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, meanwhile, was widely ridiculed for suggesting that the laws of Australia outranked the laws of mathematics.
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