December 5, 2018

Australia wants to snoop on WhatsApp and other encrypted apps

Australia is alarming the tech industry by moving ahead with plans to give government agencies the power to demand access to encrypted messages on services such as Apple's iMessage and Facebook's WhatsApp.

The plans have faced push-back from tech firms, but the proposed law is expected to be approved by the Australian parliament this week after the two main political parties agreed to support it.

The government argues the legislation will help police and security agencies combat serious offenses such as terrorist attacks and child sex crimes. But privacy advocates say it could bring risks for regular users of the apps and even make tech companies wary of doing business in Australia.

"Without these measures, it is incredibly difficult to keep Australians safe from terrorists and organized criminals," Attorney General Christian Porter told national broadcaster Seven News on Wednesday. "If we can't get into the conversations of terrorists plotting to do Australians harm, then we can't keep Australians safe."

Tech firms 'may think twice' about Australia

Internet privacy experts disagree.

"I think it's right for governments to be tackling the issue of how to do effective investigations in the digital environment," Daniel Weitzner, director of the Internet Policy Research Initiative at MIT, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) this week. "What is risky is when government puts the interest of investigators over the safety of everyone who uses the internet and mobile phones."

He said that the planned encryption rules could deter top tech firms from operating in Australia, given the costs and compromises they would demand.

"If a company that does business globally is suddenly told by the Australian government that it has to weaken its security, then it may think twice about whether it's worth being in the Australian market," Weitzner said.

Apple warns of scope for abuse

Apple (AAPL) released a seven-page letter in October criticizing the proposed legislation, arguing that it is "precisely because of [criminal] threats that we support strong encryption."

The letter warned that the planned measures could weaken cybersecurity in Australia and beyond and be abused through a lack of oversight.

Calling the bill "broad and vague," Apple argued that future governments could use it to weaken encryption.

Apple didn't immediately respond to a request for further comment on Wednesday. Facebook (FB) didn't respond to a request for comment.

Investigators 'going deaf' because of encryption

The Australian government's national security adviser, Alastair MacGibbon, said Wednesday that the legislation is meant to restore the investigative powers that authorities had for decades through legal wiretaps.

"In the last several years they've been ... going blind or going deaf because of encryption, the use of modern technologies," he said in an interview with the ABC.

But Weitzner said people who really want to keep their online communication hidden from the authorities will still be able to do so.

"A determined criminal, or a determined terrorist, is certainly going to be able to go out onto the internet today, and get for free, services that will evade the capabilities that this law is designed to help the police work around."

Law enforcement agencies in the United States have also been pushing for tougher laws to compel tech companies to share encrypted information with investigators.

The issue came into focus in early 2016 after Apple refused help the FBI break into a terrorist's iPhone, citing privacy and security concerns.

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