By David Meyer
December 6, 2018

Australia’s parliament on Thursday passed a bill forcing tech firms to help the country’s security agencies bypass the encryption in private messaging apps.

The Assistance and Access Bill will allow the police to tell the likes of WhatsApp and Signal that they must build in so-called backdoors, to give investigators access to the contents of messages—but only if the backdoors don’t constitute “systemic weaknesses” in the service’s security.

The bill will need to be rubberstamped into law by royal assent, which is expected to happen before Christmas.

Security experts are almost unanimously against backdoors, precisely because of this weakening. Once such a mechanism has been implanted in the app, it creates a target for other countries’ spy agencies and corporate spies who might want to see what people are discussing.

Australia is the first member of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing pact—others include the U.S., U.K., Canada and New Zealand—to pass a bill of this kind. The Five Eyes members said in September that tech firms had to voluntarily play ball on the bypassing-encryption front, or face legal compulsion.

The issue of encryption has been bothering intelligence agencies and lawmakers around the world for decades now. Particularly after the surveillance revelations of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, tech firms such as Apple, Google and Facebook have been encrypting more and more devices and apps, in order to convince users that they can communicate safely over them. Meanwhile, some investigators have expressed frustration at their inability to see what suspects are saying or have said.

Thursday was the last sitting day for the Australian parliament this year. 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. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said this was because he did not want to compromise the safety of Australians in the theoretical circumstance of a terrorist attack during the summer break.

Labor now hopes the government will make amendments to the law next year, such as giving a concrete definition of the term “systemic weakness.”

 

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