Oz v Silicon Valley: Australia to force tech giants to decrypt messages

14 Jul 2017

Australian parliament. Image: Heath Doman/Shutterstock

New Australian law on encryption will put pressure on Silicon Valley companies.

The Australian government has proposed a tough new cybersecurity law that will quickly force tech giants such as Apple, Facebook and Google to unscramble encrypted messages.

The bill once again raises fears among tech companies that weakening encryption to allow police to eavesdrop would leave these systems vulnerable to hackers.

‘Weakening encrypted systems for them would mean weakening it for everyone’

“We need to ensure the internet is not used as a dark place for people to hide their criminal activities from the law,” said Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

The bill, which allows courts to order tech companies to quickly decrypt messages, is expected to be introduced to the Australian parliament by November.

Five Eyes on the world

Australia is a staunch ally of the US and the UK in the war on terrorism, and is a member of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing network.

George Brandis, Australia’s attorney general, told native broadcaster ABC that the government has consulted closely with agencies such as Britain’s GCHQ on the new law.

“We would apply to internet companies, to device-makers essentially, the same obligations that apply under the existing law: to enable provision of assistance to law enforcement and to the intelligence agencies where it is necessary to deal with issues; with terrorism, with serious organised crime, with paedophile networks, and so on.”

He added: “What we are proposing to do, if we can’t get the voluntary cooperation we are seeking, is to extend the existing law that says to individuals, citizens and to companies that in certain circumstances, you have an obligation to assist law enforcement if it is within your power to do so.”

The new bill sets Australia on a collision course with major tech companies.

“Weakening encrypted systems for them would mean weakening it for everyone,” Facebook said in a statement.

Apple famously clashed with the FBI over requests to access the iPhone messages on a device belonging to one of the San Bernardino killers.

The company’s CEO, Tim Cook, said he is fundamentally against creating a backdoor into encryption. He told students at Trinity College Dublin last year that there is no such thing as a backdoor for the good guys only.

“We feel strongly that the safest approach is for the world to encrypt end-to-end with no backdoor,” Cook said at the time.

“This protects the most people. Encryption is not something only a few companies have, it’s not something you can regulate. If you close down a few companies, it’s not like the bad guys don’t have encryption of their own. They’ll just go to another source,” he warned.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years