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No ‘dark place’ for criminals: Australia plans to force tech giants to help with online decryption

No ‘dark place’ for criminals: Australia plans to force tech giants to help with online decryption
Australia has unveiled new legislation which will require international tech giants to help the authorities decode encrypted messages from suspected criminals. Facebook believes concessions to the government means weakened privacy for all.

“We need to ensure that the internet is not used as a dark place for bad people to hide their criminal activities from the law,” Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said at a press conference Friday. 

Under the new law, companies like Google and Facebook will have to cooperate with Australian police and intelligence by enabling them to read encoded messages “so that they can keep us safe.”

“The Australian Federal Police must have the powers – as do all our other intelligence and law enforcement agencies – to enforce the law online as well as offline,” the prime minister said.

Attorney-General George Brandis, also present at the conference, said that the new law is only seeking to “contemporise” existing legal principles to keep up with communications developments, calling the end-to-end encryption “potentially the greatest degradation of intelligence and law enforcement capability.”

End-to-end encryption implies that only communicating sides can read what is sent, with messages being secured with a special key so no one else, even the companies, are able to read them.

According to the acting commissioner of Australian Federal Police, 65 percent of organized crime investigations of terrorism and pedophile rings involve “some sort of encryption,” while the amount of encrypted traffic that police track has surged from 3 percent to more than 55-60 percent in recent years.

When asked by reporters what will happen if companies like Facebook and Google refuse to give out keys to their customers’ chats, the PM went on to assure that these companies “know morally they should.“

“They have to face up to their responsibility. They can't just wash their hands of it and say ‘It's got nothing to do with us,’” Turnbull said.

However, when faced with the case of Apple, which declined to break into an iPhone of San Bernardino shooter after it was ordered to help FBI in investigation, Turnbull only said that it is “a major challenge to our law enforcement ability.”

The legislation is expected to be introduced in parliament by November, AP reports citing the officials. It will also be modeled on the UK’s Investigatory Power Act of 2016, which authorized security agencies to hack into devices, networks and services, as well as it forces internet and communications companies to allow access to their customers’ personal information.

However, Facebook said it “can’t read the contents of individual encrypted messages” because of the way end-to-end encryption works.

“Weakening encrypted systems for them would mean weakening it for everyone,” AP quotes a statement by Facebook, which noted there is “a protocol in place to respond to requests where we can.”

Last month, Germany adopted similar legislation, allowing police to hack electronic devices using malware to gain access to data straight from the source, raising questions of its constitutionality among critics within and outside the government.