Al Jazeera, an online news site published previously unseen documents that were heavily redacted after negotiating with the Australian government over a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA). This was nearly five years ago. This document shows a worrying picture of the close-door negotiations that occurred before and after the Assistance and Access Act (remarkable legislation that was introduced in 2017 and became law later that year).
The law forces tech companies like Google, Facebook and Apple to grant police access to users’ encrypted data. Companies that refuse to give their private data to the police could face severe penalties. The policy is extremely harsh and could lead to the imprisonment of individuals who refuse cooperation.
Revelations from the documents include a November 2015 letter in which Australia’s Attorney-General’s Department addressed the heads of intelligence and law enforcement agencies about “broader plans to improve the Telecommunications (Intercept and Access) Act 1979.”It required input “to better understand the broader operational and technological context”Prior to advising legislators about how best to deal with encryption on behalf law enforcement.
According to the letter, the Austrian government “has indicated publicly that it favors strong encryption, but has also acknowledged that this technology is misused by criminals and terrorists,” a theme echoed in officials’ consultation with Australian tech firms. Writing to the elite of the country’s tech sector, then-Secretary of Communications and the Arts Heather Smith assured them that “government will not require the creation of so-called ‘back doors’ to encryption,”However, it was not merely “seeking collaboration with, and reasonable assistance from, our industry partners in the pursuit of public safety.”
Tech companies and opposition leaders in Australia’s parliament were against the Assistance and Access Act due to fears that deliberately introducing systemic weaknesses – so-called “back door” vulnerabilities to bypass encryption – would compromise the privacy of law-abiding Australians, make the country’s infrastructure less secure, and complicate the process by which Australian police work with foreign agencies on international law enforcement.
The perennial problem of encryption for governments fighting terrorism and organized criminality was the subject of much public debate when Apple notoriously refused to hand over private data to the FBI. This information was crucial in the FBI’s investigation into the San Bernadino shooting, and subsequent attempted bombing.
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