Australian government accuses Labor of backing terrorists on encryption-busting Bill

Government ministers have taken to the airwaves over the weekend to claim Labor is playing games with the proposed Assistance and Access Bill.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

Australian Finance Minister Mathias Cormann has accused the Labor opposition of playing games with its decision on Friday to not support the Assistance and Access Bill in full.

Cormann told Sky News over the weekend that the "best advice" to the government was that the Bill be passed swiftly.

"To think that Labor would want terrorists to be able to communicate with each other beyond the reach [of law enforcement agencies]," Cormann said.

In response to a listing of Labor's concerns with the Bill, Cormann dismissed them entirely.

"I think Labor are using excuses," he said.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also accused Bill Shorten of being "happy" for terrorists to plot attacks using encrypted messages.

"Labor are quite happy for terrorists and organised criminals to chat on WhatsApp, leaving our security agencies in the dark," Morrison told The Australian on Monday.

"There is no excuse for this type of weakness."

Energy Minister Angus Taylor then accused Labor of "running a protection racket for terrorists" by refusing to rush through laws around encrypted messages.

Taylor, who previously served as Minister for Law Enforcement and Cybersecurity, and was a key architect of the proposed laws to give security and police agencies easier access to encrypted communications, said the opposition is siding with terrorists by baulking at the Bill.

"I'll tell you what's offensive -- it's running a protection racket for terrorist networks who communicate using encrypted applications," he told Sky News on Monday.

"Terrorist networks, drug smuggling networks, child sex offender networks all [use] encrypted apps to undertake their heinous activities."

Must read: Why Australia is quickly developing a technology-based human rights problem(TechRepublic)

On Friday afternoon, Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said Labor would back a compromised Bill that would wave through the proposed powers for agencies involved in counter-terrorism, while the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) returned to examining the legislation and producing another report for the rest of the agencies with interception powers at a later date.

"Labor considers it as a workable compromise, considering the extraordinary pressure put on the committee to cut its scrutiny of the Bill short," Dreyfus said.

Later that day, Senator Jenny McAllister said that unless the government returns to the negotiating table, the opposition would be issuing a dissenting report with the amendments it proposes.

"The evidence before the committee is that if you start intervening to circumvent encryption, you create pathways for other sorts of malevolent actors in the system to do the same thing, and you weaken the security of the internet overall," she said.

"People have raised the possibility that this legislation puts us in contravention of the provisions of the US Act, the CLOUD Act, that enables the sharing of information and data. There's a concern, and we are not certain we need to get to the bottom of this, if we pass this legislation it will imperil our ability to reach an agreement with the US under the CLOUD Act, this is a serious issue that we need to get to the bottom of and we can't do that if we halt the committee's processes today."

In a submission [PDF] to the committee, Victoria Police said the compromise proposed by Labor would seriously limit the effectiveness of the Bill, and "undermine the policy intent" of it.

"I would respectfully suggest that limiting powers under the Bill to only Commonwealth agencies does not address the current serious harm to the Victorian community presented by terrorists, serious, and organised crime identities and other serious crime offenders, and would also significantly hamper the partnership approach to policing these issues," Victorian Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Paterson wrote.

"Victoria Police has significant concerns with limiting the specific offences in the Bill to offences of terrorism and child exploitation. Victoria Police is concerned that such an approach would significantly limit the effectiveness of the regime and undermine the policy intent of the measures."

See: The race to ruin the internet is upon us

Assistant Home Affairs Minister Linda Reynolds claimed the legislation needs to be rushed to help alleviate security threats over the coming summer break.

"Christmas is a heightened security issue for us and we need to make sure people are as safe and as secure as possible," Assistant Home Affairs Minister Linda Reynolds said on Sunday.

"It is the lives of Australians at risk, because the threat is real."

Asked last week whether there are any specific threats that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) needs the powers for, ASIO Director-General Duncan Lewis did not identify a threat, but instead said there is a general increased threat over the Christmas period.

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus pointed out that even if the legislation is rushed through Parliament, due to the Bill allowing for a 28-day consultation period when a Technical Capability Notice is issued, it would be nigh on impossible for ASIO to make use of all the provisions in the Bill.

The Law Council of Australia supports aspects of the Bill but said it was far too complex to be rammed through Parliament in just four days.

"The Parliament must proceed with caution to ensure we get it right. Rushed law can make bad law," President-elect Arthur Moses told AAP.

Moses also took a swipe at coalition government ministers for accusing people of putting national security at risk by raising concerns about the bill.

"Allegations like that should not be thrown around like confetti in a democracy such as ours. The energy would be better spent on getting the legislation right," he said.

Chair of Australian security vendor Senetas Francis Galbally told the committee on Friday that the current debate surrounding the Bill is similar to the one surrounding climate change in Australia.

"It's a bit like the people denying climate change -- all the scientists say there's climate change, but you politicians don't admit it," Galbally said towards the end of the hearing on Friday morning. "It's the same thing here.

"You cannot do it without creating a systemic weakness. There's no definition of it, but we've had everyone around the world telling you the same thing."

Galbally detailed how the company had conducted an assessment of the Bill at its own expense, and identified three "catastrophic outcomes" as certain or likely to occur if the Bill is passed.

"The Bill, should it become law, will profoundly undermine the reputations of Australian software developers and hardware manufacturers in international markets; there is simply no doubt that this will result in a significant reduction in local R&D and manufacturing as a consequence of declining employment and export revenue," Galbally said.

"Foreign governments and competitors will use the mere existence of this legislation to claim that Australian cybersecurity products are required to use or collaborate in creating encryption backdoors."

With AAP

Related Coverage

Editorial standards