Australia pushes ahead with plans to pressure tech firms on encryption

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Australia pushes ahead with plans to pressure tech firms on encryption

Claims it's not asking for backdoors.

The Australian government has emerged from two days of talks with its Five Eyes intelligence partners confident in its plans to have technology firms decrypt communications for law enforcement purposes.

The government met with representatives of the United States, UK, Canada, and New Zealand in Ottawa earlier this week to discuss how they could access encrypted messages used by criminals.

Attorney-General George Brandis first revealed the government's intentions to chase end-to-end encrypted communications providers earlier this month, in response to terrorists' use of the technology.

Australia has taken its lead from the UK, which proposed 'technology capability notices' following the Westminster terror attack, which would force communications operators to ensure they are technically able to hand over decrypted data to the government.

At the time the Australian government insisted it was not trying to legislate backdoors for government in popular encrypted communications products like Signal and WhatsApp.

But it is yet to detail how it expects operators - who don't hold the keys to decrypt user communications - to be able to break encryption, without weakening the security of their products.

Today Brandis said the Five Eyes partners had broadly agreed at the Ottawa meeting that being able to decrypt communications used in criminal activities was "very important".

He said the parties had concluded that "encryption can severely undermine public safety if it’s by impeding lawful access to the content of communications during investigations into serious crimes during terrorism".

But the countries had also decided to try and engage with internet service providers and technology companies to secure co-operation through an agreed set of protocols, rather than law changes, he said.

He said these protocols would not amount to a specific request for implanted backdoors.

"What we need is to develop, and what we’ll be asking the device makers and the ISPs to agree to, is a series of protocols as to the circumstances in which they will be able to provide voluntary assistance to law enforcement," Brandis told the ABC's RN Breakfast program.

"There is also, of course, the capacity which exists now in the United Kingdom and in New Zealand under their legislation for coercive powers, but we don’t want to resort to that. We want to engage with the private sector to achieve a set of voluntary solutions."

Brandis declined to provide specifics on these proposed arrangements.

"That’s a discussion that we will be having and of course I don’t want to get ahead of that discussion or to narrow or confine its scope," he said.

The minister said the parties had ruled out any efforts to try to outright ban encrypted messaging services.

"That was not discussed and wasn’t thought of and it would be infeasible," he said.

Brandis indicated he had also discussed a cross-border sharing arrangement specifically with the US that would avoid having to go through the "prolonged procedure of mutual legal assistance".

A communique from the meeting has been released. It states the Five Eyes countries will "explore shared solutions [on encryption] while upholding cyber security and individual rights and freedoms".

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