Digital rights groups call for government to back away from encryption crackdown

Australian digital rights organisations have called for the data retention scheme to be suspended and for the government to back away from any move to undermine the use of encryption.

Parliament’s Joint Committee on Law Enforcement (PJCLE) is currently staging an inquiry into the impact of new and emerging information and communications technology on Australian law enforcement agencies.

The inquiry’s terms of reference include examining the role and use of the so-called ‘dark web’ and the impact of encryption, encryption services and encrypted devices on police investigations.

The inquiry was launched in October in the wake of the government ratcheting up its rhetoric about the threat posed by criminals and terrorists taking advantage of services with effectively unbreakable end-to-end encryption.

The government is preparing to unveil legislation to enhance the ability of law enforcement agencies to access to communications over encrypted services.

“Legislation to enable Australian law enforcement and security agencies to adapt to the challenges posed by ubiquitous encryption is in an advanced stage of development,” a spokesperson for the Attorney-General’s Department toldComputerworld last month.

The Australian Privacy Foundation, Electronic Frontiers Australia, Digital Rights Watch and Future Wise in a joint submission the PJCLE noted that is so far unclear whether the government’s proposed legislation will require backdoor access to applications incorporating encryption such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp and whether it “would require these companies to modify their products and services in Australia or consider removing them from the domestic market altogether”.

Around the world a range of proposals to weaken encryption have been raised, ranging from regulatory action to weaken the encryption employed in services through to establishing a mandatory key escrow service.

The submission argues that any move to weaken or hinder access to encryption would boost opportunities for criminals and “foreign state actors” to access communications.

“Resorting to any of these policy proposals that attempt to weaken or undermine the design, standards, or protocols of encryption at a network level would introduce serious risks for a range of individuals (journalists, human rights advocates, ordinary consumers), the private sector (finance, commerce), and government,” the submission states.

The organisations argue that the increased use of digital technology mean that Australia law enforcement agencies already have “an unparalleled opportunity for intelligence gathering and criminal investigation compared with any previous point in history”.

Agencies also have an extensive legal arsenal including the power to target and hack select end-point devices in order to access communications, they argue.

In addition to calling on the government to back away from any move to undermine encryption, the submission calls for a range of reforms to Australian law, including the suspension of the data retention scheme and the introduction of judicial warrants for access to telecommunications data.

(A range of police organisations can currently self-authorise access to certain forms of historical telecommunications data.) The full submission is available online (PDF).


Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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