Australian leader says cybersecurity laws urgently needed

December 07, 2018 - 7:01 am

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — New Australian cybersecurity laws that force global technology companies such as Facebook and Google to help police by unscrambling encrypted messages sent by extremists and other criminals were urgently needed to safeguard Australia, the prime minister said Friday.

The legislation was passed by the Senate late Thursday, the last day Parliament sat in 2018.

While the opposition Labor Party agreed to support the legislation as an emergency measure because of concerns that extremists could target Christmas-New Year crowds, party lawmakers said they want amendments passed when Parliament resumes in February.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison described Labor's decision to support the laws as a concession.

"This was very important legislation to give police and security agencies the ability to get into encrypted communications. Things like WhatsApp, things like that which are used by terrorists and organized criminals and indeed pedophile rings to do their evil work," Morrison told Nine Network television.

"So I was very, very determined to make sure that was passed yesterday and Labor had to be dragged to the table," he added.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten said on Friday he remains concerned about the legislation, which he said had been rushed and needed amendments.

"There are legitimate concerns about the encryption legislation," Shorten told reporters. "But I wasn't prepared to walk away from my job and leave matters in a stand-off and expose Australians to increased risk in terms of national security."

The Law Council of Australia, a leading lawyers' group, said the process had been rushed and politicized.

"We now have a situation where unprecedented powers to access encrypted communications are now law, even though Parliament knows serious problems exist," council president Morry Bailes said.

Government Senate leader Mathias Cormann said the government supports in principle Labor's proposed amendments, but if the Senate had amended the proposed legislation, it would have been delayed until the House of Representatives sat again in February and endorsed the amendments.

"The focus yesterday was to secure the very important encryption laws unamended, through the Senate, and it was mission accomplished," he told Sky News television on Friday.

Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow has called for independent oversight and better safeguards.

"This new law will dramatically increase the access of intelligence and law enforcement agencies to the private communications of ordinary Australians, with implications for our right to privacy and freedom of expression," Santow said.

The legislation is modeled on Britain's Investigatory Powers Act. That law has given British intelligence agencies some of the most extensive surveillance powers in the Western world.

Eric Wenger, director of cybersecurity and privacy policy at the U.S. technology giant Cisco Systems, warned a parliamentary committee scrutinizing the legislation in October that the government could place Australia and its companies at a competitive disadvantage if their data are not regarded as secure.

Duncan Lewis, director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, told the committee that extremists where sharing encrypted messages that Australia's main secret service could not intercept or read.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin said encryption issues were hampering criminal investigations at all levels.

Last month, police arrested three men they allege were inspired by the Islamic State group and were planning a mass-casualty attack in Melbourne, Australia's second-largest city.

The Australian citizens of Turkish descent — Hanifi Halis and brothers Samed Eriklioglu and Ertunc Eriklioglu — had communicated with encrypted messages, which made it difficult for police to determine when and where the attack was to take place, Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton said.

Some experts have warned that weakening end-to-end encryption services so that police can eavesdrop would leave communications vulnerable to hackers.

Australian officials have described the growth of encrypted communication applications such as WhatsApp, Signal, Facebook Messenger and iMessage as potentially the greatest degradation of intelligence and law enforcement capability in decades.

Australia was a major driver of a statement agreed to at the Group of 20 leaders' summit in Germany last year that called on the technology industry to provide "lawful and non-arbitrary access to available information" needed to protect against terrorist threats.

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