Australian anti-corruption bodies should get encryption-busting powers: PJCIS

Exclusion of anti-corruption agencies was an interim measure, Andrew Hastie has said.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

The wishes of Australia's agencies focused on fighting corruption have been granted, with the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) agreeing that the powers contained within Australia's encryption-busting laws should be extended.

"The exclusion of these bodies from the Access and Assistance Act was recommended as an interim measure while the committee continued its consideration of the Act," PJCIS chair Andrew Hastie told Parliament on Tuesday evening.

"The committee recognises that these commissions have a central role in ensuring integrity and accountability within public administration. They investigate, expose, and prevent corruption involving or affecting public authorities and public officials."

Hastie added that the Australian Federal Police have used the new laws in a "number of emerging and urgent operational issues", including an investigation into drug importation using cryptocurrency via a dark web marketplace, and another looking into electronic child exploitation material. ASIO has also used the powers, but due to national security reasons, could not detail the instances, Hastie said.

The PJCIS chair sought to allay concerns over the laws, repeating assurances that companies could not be compelled to build a decryption capability, create systemic weaknesses in products, or access personal information.

"Access to personal information must be authorised by existing warrants and authorisations, which are subject to their own safeguards. It is because of these inherent safeguards that the committee unanimously recommended that the Assistance and Access Bill be passed in December," Hastie said.

"And it is because of these inherent safeguards that the Australian public and the telecommunications sector should have confidence that the legislation will not undermine their privacy and interests."

Following Hastie was Labor Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, who after pointing out the problems in the Bill on the last day of Parliament last year, voted for its passage.

On Tuesday night, Dreyfus argued that the government's amendments that were agreed to and passed by Labor last year, which resulted in the opposition dumping its own amendments to ensure the Bill passage be implemented, were inadequate.

"It is not tenable to argue, as the government continues to argue, that its amendments largely implemented the committee's 17 recommendations. No reasonable person accepts that," Dreyfus said.

"The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, who has made a public submission to the committee, doesn't accept it. Industry doesn't accept it. Lawyers and other civil society groups don't accept it. The Commonwealth Ombudsman has even told the committee that the government's amendments are inconsistent with the Ombudsman's role as an independent and impartial office.

"This fiasco of law making is what a job well done looks like to this chaotic government."

Dreyfus said Labor would be proposing its amendments again in the Senate.

"The government's amendments are supported by no-one, other than the Morrison government and its incompetent Minister for Home Affairs," he said.

"Why would the government oppose amendments that make it clear that an agency may not require a provider to do anything that could, either knowingly or unknowingly, compromise the security of an innocent third-party's personal information?

"This amendment is not some minor, technical matter to be left in the too-hard basket by a government distracted by its internal chaos and focused on nothing but clinging to power."

The Shadow Attorney-General said the amendments were necessary to protect the personal information and security of "virtually every Australian who has a smartphone or who uses the internet".

Dreyfus added that the legislation had already hit Australia's technology sector.

"Labor is committed to referring the measures introduced by this legislation to a parliamentary committee for inquiry and report on their economic impacts, he said.

"It's vital that the economic impacts of this legislation are properly considered and, if necessary, amendments are made to reduce any unnecessary impact on Australian businesses."

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