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SYD­NEY: Aus­tralia Thurs­day passed con­tro­ver­sial laws al­low­ing spies and po­lice to snoop on the en­crypted com­mu­ni­ca­tions of sus­pected ter­ror­ists and crim­i­nals, as ex­perts warned the “un­prece­dented pow­ers” had far-reach­ing im­pli­ca­tions for global cy­ber­se­cu­rity.

There has been ex­ten­sive de­bate about the laws and their reach be­yond Aus­tralia’s shores in what is seen as the lat­est salvo be­tween global gov­ern­ments and tech firms over na­tional se­cu­rity and pri­vacy.

Un­der the leg­is­la­tion, Can­berra can com­pel lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional providers -in­clud­ing over­seas com­mu­ni­ca­tion gi­ants such as Facebook and What­sapp -- to re­move elec­tronic pro­tec­tions, con­ceal covert oper­a­tions by gov­ern­ment agen­cies, and help with ac­cess to de­vices or ser­vices.

Aus­tralian au­thor­i­ties can also re­quire that those de­mands be kept se­cret.

The con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment had pushed for the bill to be passed be­fore par­lia­ment rises for the year this week, say­ing the new pow­ers were

needed to thwart ter­ror at­tacks dur­ing the fes­tive pe­riod.

A last-minute deal was struck with the op­po­si­tion La­bor Party over its de­mands for more over­sight and safe­guards when the laws are used, with a re­view of the leg­is­la­tion to take place in 18 months.

The gov­ern­ment also agreed to con­sider fur­ther amend­ments to the bill early next year.

Na­tional cy­ber se­cu­rity ad­viser Alas­tair Macgib­bon said po­lice have been “go­ing blind or go­ing deaf be­cause of en­cryp­tion” used by sus­pects.

Brush­ing off warn­ings from tech gi­ants that the laws would un­der­mine in­ter­net se­cu­rity, Macgib­bon said they would be sim­i­lar to tra­di­tional telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions in­ter­cepts, just up­dated to take in modern tech­nolo­gies.

Global com­mu­ni­ca­tions firms, in­clud­ing Google and Twit­ter, have re­peat­edly said the leg­is­la­tion would force them to cre­ate vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in their prod­ucts, such as by de­crypt­ing mes­sages on apps, which could then by ex­ploited by bad ac­tors.

A cen­tral pro­tec­tion in the laws to block au­thor­i­ties from forc­ing com­pa­nies to build a “sys­temic weak­ness” into their prod­uct re­mains poorly de­fined, crit­ics say.

The Law Coun­cil of Aus­tralia, the peak body for the le­gal pro­fes­sion, said it had “se­ri­ous con­cerns” about the changes.

“We now have a sit­u­a­tion where un­prece­dented pow­ers to ac­cess en­crypted com­mu­ni­ca­tions are now law, even though par­lia­ment knows se­ri­ous prob­lems ex­ist,” it said in a state­ment. Ex­perts such as the UN spe­cial rap­por­teur on the right to pri­vacy Joseph Can­nat­aci have de­scribed the bill as “poorly con­ceived” and “equally as likely to en­dan­ger se­cu­rity as not”.

“En­cryp­tion un­der­pins the foun­da­tions of a se­cure in­ter­net and the in­ter­net per­vades ev­ery­thing that we do in a modern so­ci­ety,” Tim de Sousa, a prin­ci­pal at pri­vacy and cy­ber­se­cu­rity con­sul­tancy elevenm, told AFP.

“If you re­quire en­cryp­tion to be un­der­mined to help law en­force­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tions, then you are ul­ti­mately un­der­min­ing that en­cryp­tion in all cir­cum­stances. Those back­doors will be found and ex­ploited by oth­ers, mak­ing ev­ery­one less se­cure,” he said.

The new laws also in­clude se­crecy pro­vi­sions, which could raise doubts over whether Aus­tralian and for­eign ven­dors have al­ready been com­pelled to act -- un­der­min­ing their busi­ness mod­els where pri­vacy is a key sell­ing point.

The most high-pro­file clash over se­cu­rity and pri­vacy was be­tween Ap­ple and the US’ FBI, when agents sought ac­cess to the data of the San Bernardino at­tack­ers in Cal­i­for­nia in 2015.

Mean­while, the Aus­tralian leg­is­la­tion could al­low for pol­icy laun­der­ing by its “Five Eyes” in­tel­li­gence-shar­ing part­ners -Canada, Bri­tain, New Zealand, and the United States -- who can­not en­act sim­i­lar pow­ers be­cause of con­sti­tu­tional or hu­man rights pro­tec­tions.

“There is an ex­trater­ri­to­rial di­men­sion to it, where for ex­am­ple the US would be able to make... a re­quest di­rectly to Aus­tralia to get in­for­ma­tion from Facebook or a tech com­pany,” said Queens­land Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy’s tech­nol­ogy reg­u­la­tion re­searcher Monique Mann.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tional im­age

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