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Australia Wants Tech Companies to Decode Encrypted Messages

FILE - Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull raises his hands as he speaks during a leaders debate hosted by Facebook Australia and in Sydney, June 17, 2016. The Australian government on July 14, 2017, proposed a new cybersecurity law to force global technology companies such as Facebook and Google to help police by unscrambling encrypted messages sent by suspected extremists and other criminals.

Australia wants to pass new laws to force major tech companies to decode encrypted messages and hand them over to crime fighters. The government in Canberra says the measures are needed to fight extremism, drug smuggling and child abuse. But technology experts say it is difficult to see how the legislation would work in practice.

The cybersecurity law would compel international technology giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook to help law enforcement agencies by helping to decode encrypted messages sent by suspected extremists and other criminals.

The proposed legislation would be modelled on Britain’s Investigatory Powers Act, which has given UK intelligence services some of the most broad-ranging surveillance powers in the Western world.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wants Australia to have the same capabilities.

“Increasingly, communications across the internet, whether it is messaging applications or voice applications, are encrypted end-to-end, and that means while they can be intercepted they cannot be read. So, what we are seeking to do, working with the other leading economies in the world, is to ensure that the brilliant tech companies in Silicon Valley and their emulators bring their brilliance to bear to assist the rule of law,” Turnbull said.

The Australian Federal Police say the legislation would not change or expand what the authorities could currently legally intercept, but would give them the ability to see material that is scrambled by encryption applications.

Resistance expected

The Turnbull administration is expecting resistance from some tech companies, including many based in the United States. Apple boss Tim Cook has previously rejected co-operation with governments that could undermine the security of its products.

Professor Nigel Phair, director of the Center for Internet Safety at the University of Canberra, says the Australian plan is fraught with problems.

“There is no silver bullet to catching these people and as soon as we create, or try to create, a backdoor in one messaging app, they are just going create their own messaging app which will not cooperate with government. So there is other players out there that will not cooperate with government. They might be domiciled in a foreign jurisdiction that does not abide by the way we play, and, of course, the criminals will just use that app,” Phair said.

Australian authorities say that 65 percent of their investigations into serious crime, including terrorism and pedophile rings, involve some sort of encryption.

Ministers hope to introduce the laws in parliament in the next few months.