Australia to Pressure Google and Facebook to Decrypt Messages

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

July 24, 2017

There seems to be no middle ground when it comes to opinions on encryption. Either it’s evil and loathsome or it’s a fantastic, privacy-saving security feature. With each terror incident, the rhetoric against encryption is ratcheted up a notch. Now, the revelation that the Australian government is proposing legislation to compel companies to soften encryption standards indicates that the stars are fast aligning against it. More than two-thirds of information being lawfully intercepted by the Australian Federal Police now uses some form of encryption.

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The proposed laws will also give the Australian Federal Police the ability to remotely monitor computer networks and devices. This could be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the demise of encryption. Australia is one of the Five Eyes nations (along with Canada, the UK, the US, and New Zealand). The UK, with its Investigatory Powers Act, is already in the camp Australia is seeking to join, and the gathering momentum may lead the other members to follow suit. Since the topic was high on the agenda at last month’s G20 summit, those member countries may also fall into line with regard to weakening encryption.

Australian Attorney-General George Brandis’ remarks about encryption tell you all you need to know about where this saga is heading. He called encryption the “greatest degradation of intelligence and law enforcement capability” in a lifetime. His remarks have kicked off a government offensive to compel companies like Google and Facebook to decrypt online messages to aid in the fight against terrorism.

The government carefully qualified its argument by saying that its “very strong first preference” was for companies to volunteer their help. However, the ultimate objective will closely mirror the UK’s Snooper’s Charter (Investigatory Powers Act), which obliges companies to cooperate with investigations.  If Australia passes the anti-encryption laws, the government says it will be better able to investigate pedophile networks, major organized crime, and terrorism. Who can be opposed to that? Well, Facebook, for one.

Facebook owns WhatsApp, one of the world’s most popular encrypted messaging apps, and it is up in arms. According to a spokesperson, Facebook provided data to police and intelligence officials 657 times last year. The spokesperson for the tech titan stated,

“Weakening encrypted systems for (law enforcement) would mean weakening it for everyone. We appreciate the important work law enforcement does and we understand their need to carry out investigations. That’s why we already have a protocol in place to respond to requests where we can.”

Other security and industry experts warn that weakening encryption, or allowing law enforcement access to encryption, would open a Pandora’s Box of problems. Everyone would be at risk once the bad guys also find their way in. However, it appears Brandis and his cohorts are undeterred by such assertions. Nor does it faze him when it is pointed out that bypassing encrypted communications is so sophisticated that even the tech giants themselves could not decode the messages on their own platforms.

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In every instance, the opposition politicians promise to hold a vigorous debate on the issue, but time and again the issue of national security being at stake dominates and wins the argument. It looks likely to happen again.

Image Credit:esfera/

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