In an unprecedented move, Australia is moving ahead with plans to give government agencies the power to keek on Apple’s iMessage and Facebook’s Whatsapp.
The Australian Parliament unanimously agreed to empower government agencies to demand access to encrypted messages on both platforms, a development that has the tech community up in arms.
The government says the move will help it curb serious offenses like terrorist attacks, child sex crimes, and others. But privacy advocates say it could bring risks for regular users of the apps and even make tech companies wary of doing business in Australia.
‘Without these measures, it is incredibly difficult to keep Australians safe from terrorists and organized criminals,’ Attorney General Christian Porter told national broadcaster Seven News on Wednesday. ‘If we can’t get into the conversations of terrorists plotting to do Australians harm, then we can’t keep Australians safe.’
Internet privacy experts disagree.
‘I think it’s right for governments to be tackling the issue of how to do effective investigations in the digital environment,’ Daniel Weitzner, director of the Internet Policy Research Initiative at MIT, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) this week. ‘What is risky is when government puts the interest of investigators over the safety of everyone who uses the internet and mobile phones.’
He said that the planned encryption rules could deter top tech firms from operating in Australia, given the costs and compromises they would demand.
‘If a company that does business globally is suddenly told by the Australian government that it has to weaken its security, then it may think twice about whether it’s worth being in the Australian market,’ Weitzner said.
Apple warns of scope for abuse
Apple (AAPL) released a seven-page letter in October criticizing the proposed legislation, arguing that it is ‘precisely because of [criminal] threats that we support strong encryption.’
The letter warned that the planned measures could weaken cybersecurity in Australia and beyond and be abused through a lack of oversight.
Calling the bill ‘broad and vague,’ Apple argued that future governments could use it to weaken encryption.
Apple and Facebook have not given any new statements on the issue.
Investigators ‘going deaf’ because of encryption
The Australian government’s national security adviser, Alastair MacGibbon, said Wednesday that the legislation is meant to restore the investigative powers that authorities had for decades through legal wiretaps.
‘In the last several years they’ve been … going blind or going deaf because of encryption, the use of modern technologies,’ he said in an interview with the ABC.
But Weitzner said people who really want to keep their online communication hidden from the authorities will still be able to do so.
‘A determined criminal, or a determined terrorist, is certainly going to be able to go out onto the internet today, and get for free, services that will evade the capabilities that this law is designed to help the police work around.’
Law enforcement agencies in the United States have also been pushing for tougher laws to compel tech companies to share encrypted information with investigators.
The issue came into focus in early 2016 after Apple refused to help the FBI break into a terrorist’s iPhone, citing privacy and security concerns.