Thursday, 22 February 2018 10:20

Govt says companies will be forced to decrypt data when asked to do so Featured

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The Coalition Government has indicated that it will force companies that provide encryption for communications to devise a means of giving government agencies access to encrypted messages.

In a speech at the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton did not mention the word "backdoors", but said Australia planned to introduce legislation to ensure that companies which provide communications services and devices in the country are obliged to assist government when needed.

He claimed that ubiquitous encryption had become a "significant obstacle" to the investigation of terrorism offences.

Dutton did not provide specific instances where this had happened in Australia, but claimed: "We know that more than 90% of counter-terrorism targets are using it for communications, including for attack planning here.

"Law enforcement access to encrypted communications should be on the same basis as telephone and other intercepts, in which companies provide vital and willing assistance in response to court orders," said Dutton, who was previously Immigration Minister and now has a vastly expanded portfolio.

Last year, there were several occasions when both Australian and foreign officials made similar claims and called for backdoors in encrypted services.

In the wake of an attack in the UK, British Prime Minister Theresa May called for denying terrorists and their sympathisers access to digital tools that she claimed were being used for communication and planning attacks.

And in July last year, it was reported that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull planned to ask US President Donald Trump to demand that US technology companies break into encrypted messages sent by suspected terrorists.

In October, the US deputy attorney-general Rod Rosenstein called on Silicon Valley to provide a means for law enforcement to access encrypted digital evidence that was stored and transferred by private technology companies.

Dutton said decryption took hours to complete and time was " a precious commodity when threats may materialise in a matter of days or even hours".

"Companies ought to be concerned with the reputational harm that comes from terrorists and criminals using their encryption and social media platforms for illicit ends," he said.

The limitations of what a company can do with regard to encryption were clearly outlined in the Apple-FBI stoush in 2016.

Briefly put, the FBI took Apple to court, asking that it produce a version of its mobile operating system that could be loaded on an iPhone 5C that belonged to Syed Rizwan Farook, one of two terrorists involved in killings in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015.

This was required because the FBI could not gain access to the content on the iPhone in question. In the end, the FBI used an outside party to gain access to what it wanted and dropped the case against Apple.

Dutton said the Australian Government was willing to work with these firms. "But we will also introduce legislation to ensure companies providing communications services and devices in Australia have an obligation to assist agencies with decryption. And as a society we should hold these companies responsible when their service is used to plan or facilitate unlawful activity.

"So we must continue to review and refine our laws to ensure they are fit for purpose."

Photo: courtesy Peter Dutton's YouTube channel

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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