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Australia passes data encryption law

08 December 2018

The Australian government has passed an unprecedented and controversial anti-encryption bill, which has been opposed by Apple, Google, Facebook, and other tech giants. The third stage is also compulsory and demands companies proactively work to build mechanisms to help authorities collect information. The opposition Labor party had tried to amend the legislation, but that would have meant continuing the debate into next year, so the party dropped its amendments at the last minute.

"We think that the bill does need to go forward but we offer to let it go forward without the amendments that are needed, without the amendments that are required to make it conform to the agreement reached between the government and Labor, provided the government agrees next - at the very next sitting day of the parliament to pass the amendments that we say are needed", Dreyfus said at the press conference.

Law enforcers have been "going blind or going deaf" because of encryption, he said.

The bill provides for fines of up to A$10 million (US$7.2 million) for institutions and prison terms for individuals for failing to hand over data linked to suspected illegal activities.

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As a member of the Five Eyes worldwide alliance, laws like this could set a precedent for other countries.

Governments, not just Australia, spin the breaking of encryption as essential for law enforcement, national security, and the fight against terrorism. US law enforcement officials, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, are again pushing for legislation that would somehow give authorities access to secure communications.

Signal, WhatsApp and Wickr are examples of encrypted apps - their encryption prevents law enforcement agencies from reading messages intercepted under warrant while looking into crimes.

Earlier in the week, the bill, with some amendments, appeared to have enough support to be passed. Australia is part of the Five Eyes security alliance, along with New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom and the U.S. As such, this could cause wider reverberations that are felt internationally. The legislation says the government "must not require providers to implement or build systemic weaknesses in forms of electronic protection ('back doors')" but also says it can "require the selective deployment of a weakness or vulnerability in a particular service, device or item of software on a case-by-case basis".

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If the bill does become law, Australia would be one of the first nations to impose broad access requirements on technology companies, but others may follow.

Security experts are nearly unanimously against backdoors, precisely because of this weakening.

"Encryption underpins the foundations of a secure internet and the internet pervades everything that we do in a modern society", Tim de Sousa, a principal at privacy and cybersecurity consultancy elevenM, told AFP.

Apple refused, arguing that it would weaken encryption and it would create perilous privacy consequences for consumers.

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Several tech groups have serious privacy concerns about the laws, saying they will leave us more vulnerable to hackers.

Australia passes data encryption law