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​Canberra gives 'decryption' another crack with draft legislation

The Australian government is still committed to 'no backdoors', publishing draft legislation that will force internet companies to assist law enforcement in decrypting messages sent with end-to-end encryption.

The federal government has finally detailed how it plans to access encrypted communications, publishing draft legislation more than a year after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced his intentions to do so.

In a bid to address the "serious challenges posed by current communications technology to law enforcement and national security investigations", the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 [PDF] is described by the government as forcing "critical assistance" from the communications industry and enabling law enforcement to effectively investigate serious crimes in the digital era.

The Bill, opened to the public for consultation, introduces measures that the government said will improve the ability of agencies to access intelligible communications content and data.

As detailed in the explanatory document [PDF], three reforms will help achieve such purpose, with the first enhancing the obligations of domestic providers to give "reasonable assistance" to Australia's key law enforcement and security agencies, extending assistance obligations to offshore providers supplying communications services and devices in Australia.

The Bill will also introduce new computer access warrants for law enforcement that will enable them to "covertly obtain evidence directly from a device", while also strengthening the ability of law enforcement and security authorities to overtly access data through existing search and seizure warrants.

Turnbull, along with his then Attorney-General George Brandis, announced plans in July last year to introduce the legislation that would force internet companies to assist law enforcement in decrypting messages sent with end-to-end encryption.

Questioning whether the proposed legislation was technically possible, ZDNet asked the prime minister if the laws of mathematics would trump the laws of Australia.

"The laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that," Turnbull told ZDNet. "The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia."

During his media rounds, Turnbull made sure he let Australia know that his intention was to protect the nation against terrorism and to protect the community from criminal rings such as those involved in paedophilia, rather than nutting out the technical specs of the laws modelled on the UK's snoopers' charter.

With the legislation's oversight now handed to Minister for Law Enforcement and Cyber Security Angus Taylor, his statement on Tuesday focused on protecting Australians with the legislation, saying again that technologies including encryption are increasingly being used by paedophiles, terrorists, and organised criminals to conceal their illicit activities.

"We know that more than 90 percent of data lawfully intercepted by the Australian Federal Police now uses some form of encryption. This has directly impacted around 200 serious criminal and terrorism-related investigations in the last 12 months alone," he said.

"We must ensure our laws reflect the rapid take-up of secure online communications by those who seek to do us harm. These reforms will allow law enforcement and interception agencies to access specific communications without compromising the security of a network."

According to Taylor, the measures in the Bill "expressly prevent" the weakening of encryption or the introduction of backdoors.

"I am committed to maintaining the integrity of Australians' personal information, devices, and communications," he continued.

"Our first priority is keeping Australians safe and these measures will go a long way to ensure that criminals cannot hide."

The draft legislation is open for public discussion until September 10, 2018.

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