Take care what you type in Aus­tralia

Nelson Mail - - Technology - Rick Noack

As ter­ror­ist at­tacks in­creased af­ter 2014 amid the Is­lamic State’s global push, Aus­tralian au­thor­i­ties were con­fronted by a chal­lenge they shared with all other West­ern agen­cies: they could iden­tify sus­pects but ac­cess­ing their com­mu­ni­ca­tions to dis­cover their in­ten­tions was of­ten im­pos­si­ble.

More than 95 per cent of Aus­tralian ter­ror­ism sus­pects use en­crypted com­mu­ni­ca­tions, ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates by the coun­try’s cy­ber se­cu­rity min­istry.

On Thurs­day, Aus­tralia’s Par­lia­ment passed the most ex­pan­sive bill of all West­ern coun­tries that could force ma­jor United States tech com­pa­nies such as Google, Ap­ple and Face­book to pro­vide au­thor­i­ties with ac­cess to such en­crypted data.

Many mes­sag­ing apps that are be­ing used by a ma­jor­ity of Aus­tralians of­fer en­cryp­tion as ei­ther the stan­dard or as an op­tion. These in­clude Face­book Mes­sen­ger and What­sApp.

Aus­tralian law en­force­ment representatives un­sur­pris­ingly cel­e­brated the par­lia­men­tary ap­proval.

Aus­traloian at­tor­ney-gen­eral Chris­tian Porter said the op­po­si­tion La­bor Party had ‘‘put the safety of Aus­tralians above po­lit­i­cal point-scor­ing,’’ af­ter ini­tially op­pos­ing the leg­is­la­tion.

Aus­tralia is the first na­tion in the so-called ‘‘Five Eyes’’ al­liance – also com­posed of Canada, the US, New Zealand and Bri­tain – to move ahead with leg­is­la­tion that will al­most in­evitably re­sult in a stand­off with ma­jor pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions.

In Amer­ica, Sil­i­con Val­ley has so far re­sisted ef­forts by law­mak­ers and law en­force­ment agen­cies seek­ing to gain ac­cess to the com­mu­ni­ca­tions of sus­pects in crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Cre­at­ing a back chan­nel, they say, could open the door for other il­le­git­i­mate use by state-spon­sored for­eign en­ti­ties and crim­i­nal groups.

Aus­tralia’s de­ci­sion is the most se­ri­ous at­tempt by any na­tional par­lia­ment to date to rein in tech com­pa­nies in­vol­un­tar­ily.

Crit­ics fear that the vote sets a dan­ger­ous prece­dent.

‘‘Sev­eral crit­i­cal is­sues re­main un­ad­dressed in this leg­is­la­tion, most sig­nif­i­cantly the prospect of in­tro­duc­ing sys­temic weak­nesses that could put Aus­tralians’ data se­cu­rity at risk,’’ read a state­ment by the Dig­i­tal In­dus­try Group .

Top tech com­pa­nies op­posed to the new bill are also con­cerned that Aus­tralia’s new stan­dards could also be adopted else­where, in­clud­ing in Europe, where law­mak­ers have al­ready pushed for some of the world’s tough­est pri­vacy stan­dards.

Reg­u­la­tory scru­tiny has mostly been a fi­nan­cial threat in Europe, where tech com­pa­nies can face max­i­mum fines of up to 4 per cent of their an­nual turnover for pri­vacy breaches, but Aus­tralia’s new bill goes fur­ther by hold­ing in­di­vid­ual representatives li­able, as well.

Even though max­i­mum fines are lim­ited to about US$7 mil­lion (NZ$10m), in­di­vid­u­als who fail to com­ply with the bill may face ar­rest and prison sen­tences.

Un­til Thurs­day, it ap­peared un­likely that the up­per house of Aus­tralia’s Par­lia­ment, the Se­nate, would agree to those pro­vi­sions al­ready passed by the lower house.

Then the La­bor Party sur­pris­ingly changed course, how­ever, say­ing that it would back the bill in both cham­bers, pro­vided that mi­nor amend­ments are made af­ter the leg­is­la­tion is en­acted.

The new bill is now set to take ef­fect be­fore Christ­mas.

Sev­eral crit­i­cal is­sues re­main un­ad­dressed in this leg­is­la­tion.

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