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The Government Wants Access To Encrypted Messaging Apps And Social Media

The controversial push to open up secret chats to police and law enforcement.

CANBERRA -- Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Labor leader Bill Shorten seem on a unity ticket to give police access to encrypted messaging apps and social media, despite backlash and criticism from the tech community.

In the wake of terror attacks in London and Manchester, and the Brighton siege gunman claiming to have acted in support of ISIS and al-Qaeda, the federal government has been talking up new measures to clamp down on terrorists and their supporters. One plank of that campaign is a renewed push to tighten the citizenship and refugee application processes; another is floating the possibility of forcing social media and messaging companies like Facebook and Whatsapp to give law enforcement access to encrypted information.

"Encrypted messaging applications are also used by criminals and terrorists. At the moment, much of this traffic is difficult for our security agencies to decrypt and, indeed, for our Five Eyes partners as well," Turnbull said on Tuesday, in delivering a national security update to the federal parliament.

"The privacy of a terrorist can never be more important than public safety - never. And online civil society is as achievable as an offline one, and the rights and protections of the vast, overwhelming majority of Australians, must outweigh the rights of those who will do them harm."

Encryption -- in the context of social media and messaging apps like Whatsapp, Signal and Telegram -- means that a message can only be read by the person sending it, and the person receiving it. Messages can only be read by someone with the "key" of either the sender or recipient, the idea being that nobody else, not even the government or even the service provider itself, can decrypt those messages.

The government has not explicitly laid out what it wants in terms of encrypted messaging, but both Turnbull and Shorten spoke on Tuesday about the need for social media and messaging companies to engage in cooperation and "collaboration" with police investigations.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten made addresses on national security on Tuesday
Andrew Meares
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten made addresses on national security on Tuesday

"With this objective, the Attorney-General will be in Canada later this month to meet with the Five Eyes counterparts and discuss what more can be done among our like-minded nations and with the communications and technology industry to ensure that terrorists and organised criminals are not able to operate with impunity in ungoverned digital spaces online," Turnbull said.

While privacy and security advocates have feared this approach could include obligations for messaging companies to insert "backdoors" into their programs -- which would give those companies and by extension, government, a shortcut access to encrypted information -- the Prime Minister refuted this.

"This is not about creating or exploiting back doors, as some privacy advocates continue to say, despite constant reassurance from us. It is about collaboration with and assistance from industry in the pursuit of public safety," he said.

"We must be faster, smarter and more agile than those who seek to do us harm. Set and forget is not an option."

PA Wire/PA Images

Right after Turnbull's address, Shorten also spoke to the federal parliament on the same topics, also pushing for messaging companies to engage with government and police.

"The big internet companies have quickly become an essential part of our free, democratic society, but they need to realise this is a two-way relationship. They need to be part of our society in the sense of working with us as well as taking from us," the Labor leader said.

"They need to see this fight as their fight, not just our fight, not just a fight where they help when asked, but a fight in which they come to us with ideas. We need them to be proactive, not reactive. Terrorism does not self-police, so we cannot rely on a self-policing system. These tech giants must wake up to the fact that they have a position, if not the authority, to tackle the underbelly of terror propaganda in this context."

The opposition leader spoke about "the dark web" and Bitcoin as concerns around terrorism and crime.

"A network of untraceable online activities and hidden websites, allowing those who wish to stay in the shadows to remain hidden. Terrorists are increasingly using this network to avoid detection, conduct planning and acquire capability and tools to carry out their evil actions. We must target this threat head-on," Shorten said.

"As terrorists adapt their methods and seek to hide online, we must ensure our agencies have the tools, resources and technology so terrorism has no place to hide. Likewise, we need to track and target terrorists as they seek to hide and obscure their financial dealings through electronic currencies like Bitcoin. We can allow them no sanctuary, no place to rest, we must dislodge them from wherever they hide."

"In doing this, though, we must always be mindful of the rule of law and the proper protections of our citizens. But we cannot sit back when our enemies have access to a worldwide system to educate and fund extremists."

Neither side has outlined exactly what they hope to do around encrypted messaging, and what actions they will be pushing social media and messaging companies to take. However, with seeming bipartisan support to crack down on encrypted communications, some change seems inevitable.

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