Australia to mandate police access to encrypted messages

A security update message is seen on a Whatsapp message in this illustration photo April 6, 2016. (Reuters file photo)

SYDNEY -- The Australian government announced Friday it will introduce new laws that will compel social media companies like Google and Facebook help law enforcement access encrypted online messages from suspected terrorists and criminals.

Speaking at a joint press conference with the attorney general, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the new laws would be used to assist Australian Federal Police in circumventing barriers that encryption places when investigating terrorist plots, drug trafficking rings and child exploitation groups.

The government is expected to introduce the new laws to parliament before the end of the year.

"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," Mr Turnbull said.

The prime minister said the new laws will be modelled on Britain's Investigatory Powers Act, which obligates companies to cooperate with investigations.

"What they (online communication companies) will have to do is to provide assistance to the police to enable them to have access to the information pursuant to a warrant," Mr Turnbull said.

According to the government, online encryption affected 90% of priority cases investigated by Australia's national security agency.

Attorney General George Brandis said the new laws do not change any existing legal principles, but instead bring existing obligations up to date.

"It has always been accepted that in appropriate cases, under warrant, there can be lawful surveillance of private communications," Mr Brandis said.

"It is vitally important that the development of technology does not leave the law behind."

Australia introduced the issue of fighting terrorism through online communication at last week's Group of 20 summit in Germany, resulting in a unanimous statement from all leaders that "the rule of law applies online as well as it does offline”.

The issue of government access to encrypted messages has been divisive, with Apple refusing in 2016 to comply with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation's request to unlock an iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook.

Back to top