Law enforcement used encryption-busting laws 11 times last year

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Law enforcement used encryption-busting laws 11 times last year

NSW Police issued seven technical assistance requests.

Australia's controversial encryption-busting powers were used 11 times by law enforcement agencies in their first full-year of operation, the Department of Home Affairs has revealed.

The figure was disclosed in the 2019-20 Telecommunications (Inception and Access) Act annual report [pdf], released on Thursday.

It is the second report to be released since the Assistance and Access Act gave rise to a suite of new powers such as technical assistance requests (TARs) in December 2018.

TARs allow agencies to seek voluntary assistance from service providers to provide data or assistance during the course of an investigation.

According to the report, 11 TARs were issued by law enforcement between July 2019 and June 2020, slightly more than the seven TARs issued between July 2018 and June 2019.

“One was given by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission [ACIC], three were given by the Australia Federal Police [AFP] and seven were given by NSW Police,” it states.

The report notes, however, that two of the AFP’s TARs – “given to be used against all serious offences as the need arose” – were “revoked prior to assistance being utilised”.

More coercive powers available to law enforcement in the form of technical assistance notices (TANs) and technical capability notices (TCNs) were not issued during the period.

The report indicates that NSW Police and ACIC used their TARs for primarily illicit drug and robbery offences, while the AFP used its one remaining request for cybercrime.

This is in keeping with interception warrants issued by law enforcement agencies more generally, with more than half of the 3677 interception warrants for serious drug and trafficking offences last financial year.

None of the agencies used the powers for "terrorism offences" for a second year in a row, despite the federal government using this reasoning to rush the passage of the laws in 2018.

The use of TARs, TANs and TCNs by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Australian Signals Directorate and Australian Secret Intelligence Service are not detailed in the report.

The annual report also reveals that the total number of historical telecommunication data authorisations climbed 15,621 to 311,312 in 2019-20, as did prospective telecommunications data authorisations (32,856 in 2019-20 vs 27,771 in 2018-19).

Law enforcement agencies also issued 1385 stored communications warrants in 2019-20, an increase of 13 on the 1254 warrants issued in 2018-19.

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