'Decryption' legislation a top priority for Australia's cybersecurity minister

Almost 12 months since Canberra announced plans for a decryption silver bullet, Minister for Law Enforcement and Cyber Security Angus Taylor said the legislation is still on its way and it's one of his personal priorities.

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Image: Asha McLean/ZDNet

Minister for Law Enforcement and Cyber Security Angus Taylor has told the CeBIT Australia conference in Sydney on Thursday that the federal government's push to access encrypted communication is one of his highest priorities, but he refused to offer a date of when legislation can be expected.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, along with his then Attorney-General George Brandis, announced plans in July to introduce legislation that would force internet companies to assist law enforcement in accessing messages sent with end-to-end encryption.

Questioning if 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 his intention was to protect the nation from terrorism and 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.

While no further detail was offered on Thursday, Taylor said the Coalition still intends to introduce legislation that would force companies to bend to the government's will.

Pointing to the take-down of Phantom Secure, a criminal enterprise allegedly servicing the organised crime market with secure, encrypted communications, Taylor said it highlights the potency of strong encryption in the hands of criminal and terrorist organisations. He said strong encryption is no longer just accessible to such groups, rather it is becoming increasingly publicly available in many messaging applications

"95 percent of ASIOs most concerning counter-terrorism targets actively use encrypted messaging ... and 90 percent of data lawfully intercepted by the federal police use some form of encryption," the minister said.

Taylor said Australian agencies predict that by 2020, most communications will be end-to-end encrypted.

"Let me be clear about this, we support strong encryption for the security of information and the protection of privacy. We firmly believe that cybersecurity will be enhanced by encryption -- it is a good thing," Taylor continued.

"But its near-ubiquitous use in the coming years poses a very serious threat for law enforcement and the Australian public have the right to expect a company operating in Australia will assist where they can -- within reason -- and that being the important qualifier, with lawful requests to access for data."

Taylor said progressing the work on legislation that Turnbull announced in July is "one of my highest priorities".

"The focus is on getting it right, not rushing it," Taylor said of the looming date of the legislation. "This is a big issue across the world, I'm speaking with agencies across the world ... we see encryption as crucial for cybersecurity.

"To weaken encryption as a means for supporting law enforcement that's not what we want ... I also think we can support law enforcement without breaking encryption."

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