Law enforcement agencies ramp up use of anti-encryption laws

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Law enforcement agencies ramp up use of anti-encryption laws

At least 18 requests issued to service providers in last six months.

Law enforcement and national security agencies are increasing their use of the federal government’s controversial anti-encryption laws, with more than twice the number of requests issued to service providers in the last six months.

In its most recent Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act annual report [pdf], released on Tuesday, the Department of Home Affairs revealed that the laws were used a total of seven times during the 2018-19 reporting period.

The Assistance and Access Act 2018, which was waved through Parliament in December 2018 much to the dismay of the tech community, gives law enforcement and national security agencies access to a suite of new encryption-busting powers.

One of these is a technical assistance request (TARs), which allows agencies to seek voluntary assistance from service providers to provide data or assistance when investigating serious crimes or national security threats. 

According to the report, two law enforcement agencies used the laws to “request technical assistance from designated communications providers” between December 2018 and June 2019.

“Five technical assistance requests were given by the AFP [Australian Federal Police], two were given by NSW Police,” the 2018-19 report states.

“No TANs [technical assistance notices] or TCNs [technical capability notices] were given by interception agencies.”

Home Affairs said the seven TARs were used to enforce primarily cybercrime and telecommunications offences, but also homicide, organised crime, drug and theft related offences 

But in answers to questions on notice from recent senate estimates, which provide more up-to-date data, the department said the Assistance and Access Act had been used to issue a total of 25 TARs since the laws were introduced.

It did not, however, indicate which agencies - or which type of agency - had issued the requests.

“As at 15 November 2019, three agencies had issued 25 technical assistance requests using the industry assistance framework introduced by Schedule 1 of the Assistance and Access Act,” the department said.

Taking the two documents together, the laws were used seven times to issue technical assistance requests between December 2018 and June 2019, and 18 times between July 2019 and November 2019.

The answers to questions on notice also indicated that ten computer access requests had been issued by two agencies under Schedule 2 of the Assistance and Access Act, though the department did not detail which agencies.

Next month the Senate will debate proposed amendments to the Access and Assistance Act tabled by the opposition at the close of parliament last year. 

The Telecommunications Amendment (Repairing Assistance and Access) Bill 2019 intends to introduce changes that were first recommended by the powerful Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence & Security (PJCIS) before the laws were passed.

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