New national security laws giving authorities the power to intercept encrypted communications are likely to pass parliament by the end of the week despite ongoing concerns from global tech giants and Australian IT firms.
The new laws seek to modernise police powers in the age of the internet and smartphones but have been slammed by critics for being broad in scope, vague and potentially damaging to the security of the global digital economy.
Agencies like ASIO or the Australian Federal Police will have the ability to request telecommunication and tech companies help them with their investigations and compel companies to build ways to allow targeted access to encrypted communications data.
Among other things, the bill also gives powers to police to force you to open your smartphone for them.
Encryption underpins much of what we do online (including ensuring no one can see the saucy pics you send on WhatsApp) and it’s unclear how the world first laws would be implemented, and the overall security consequences to the safety of the internet.
A Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has been scrutinising the bill which the Coalition has been trying to push through. On Tuesday afternoon, the federal government and Labor came to an in-principle agreement on key parts of the bill, after both sides made concessions.
The laws will help security agencies nab terrorists, child sex offenders and other serious criminals, according to Attorney-General Christian Porter. About 95 per cent of people currently being surveilled by security agencies are using encrypted messages, he noted.
“This is a massive step forward for the Australian people, in ensuring our outstanding intelligence and security agencies are, in their words, back in the game,” he said.
One of the key changes prompted by Labor is that the bill must define what constitutes a “systemic weakness” in a device, something that remains an unclear sticking point.
“If the revised draft bill attempts to define ‘systemic weakness’ — as it should do — it is important that this definition not be so narrow that it allows substantial and dangerous back-doors to be ordered by enforcement agencies and yet escape being identified as systemic weaknesses,” said Communications Alliance CEO, John Stanton.
The opposition was also trying to limit the powers of the bill to cases involving child sex offences, homicide and terrorism as opposed to all federal crimes involving a three-year prison term.
After speaking out strongly against the bill earlier this week, Labor MP Tim Watts defended his party’s turnaround on the controversial legislation.
“I’d suggest that you wait and see our amendments before forming a conclusion,” he wrote to detractors on Twitter.
Robert Hudson, the president of Information Technology Professionals Association which was established to advance the understanding of ICT (information and communications technology) matters within corporate and government sectors in Australia, shot back saying the government’s rationale for the bill is delusional.
“‘Shred it, bin it, set the bin on fire, pretend that (we) weren’t ignorant enough to even consider a bill this stupid’ is the only worthy amendment,” he wrote.
“The (bill) weakens legitimate usage of encryption and does nothing to help prevent crime. Thinking otherwise is delusional.”