Dutton leans on encryption laws committee to hurry up

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton wants proposed legislation allowing police to read encrypted messages made law soon, after a terror plot was foiled.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

Peter Dutton is pressuring a committee that is dealing with new laws targeted at encrypted messaging to cut short its public hearings.

The Home Affairs minister is renewing his push for greater police access to encrypted communications following a foiled terrorist attack in Melbourne.

Police said the three men who were charged with terrorism offences on Tuesday were using an encrypted messaging tool.

Dutton has urged the Liberal-chaired Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security to speed up its deliberations on the proposed Assistance and Access Bill .

"I would like the committee to deal with it as quickly as possible," he told Sky News on Wednesday.

"I have spoken to [chair] Andrew Hastie about ways in which the committee can deal with this in an expeditious way so that the parliament can deal with it as soon as possible."

Hastie said the matter was urgent but the committee was still in the middle of the inquiry process.

"We've taken quite a bit of evidence and we'll bring that to a conclusion soon," Hastie said.

See: OAIC calls for sunset clause on encryption-busting Bill and warns of privacy risks

Despite Dutton's insistence, the chances of the bill being passed before the end of the year appear slim.

The committee is due to hold three more public hearings, on November 27, November 30, and December 3 just two days before parliament rises for the year.

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, who is on the committee, said the process should be given as much time as needed.

"In every case the committee has recommended very substantial change," he told ABC radio.

Cabinet Minister Angus Taylor called the proposed laws "balanced" and "sensible".

"We've got to ensure criminals, terrorists, and paedophiles have nowhere to hide. At the moment, they're hiding behind encryption," he said.

However, Digital Rights Watch chairman Tim Singleton-Norton warns an increase in police powers should not be taken lightly.

"The government hasn't actually answered ... how are they going to create the checks and balances to ensure only certain people that we think are okay have access," he told ABC Radio on Wednesday.

The legislation would require tech companies to hand over encrypted messages when authorities are investigating crimes.

Under the proposed law, Australian government agencies would be able to issue three kinds of notices:

  • Technical Assistance Notices (TAN), which are compulsory notices for a communication provider to use an interception capability they already have;
  • Technical Capability Notices (TCN), which are compulsory notices for a communication provider to build a new interception capability, so that it can meet subsequent Technical Assistance Notices; and
  • Technical Assistance Requests (TAR), which have been described by experts as the most dangerous of all.

In the latest hearing held on Friday, chair of Internet Australia, Dr Paul Brooks, said there is no real need to keep encryption-busting capabilities of the Bill secret, and that any capabilities should be made public, as is currently done for phone tapping equipment.

"The fact that a particular capability that is built into the equipment is being used in a particular instance, that should be kept secret, but the fact the equipment has the capability at all, that is not secret," Brooks said.

Read: Australian encryption Bill raises bar for outrageous legislation: Comms Alliance

"The aim of this whole thing is ultimately to catch criminals and terrorists that are using software systems for nefarious purposes -- if there is a capability in that system for that activity to be monitored or messages to be seen, the net effect of having that capability known is effectively that the dumb criminals will continue to use the software anyway, and they may get caught."

"And if the purposes of the secrecy is to enable criminals to be caught, the fact that that capability is public means the smart criminals won't use that system, that system will be denied to them, and they will need to find another way."

Echoing concerns from local security vendor Senetas, which said earlier this month that the Bill endangers AU$3 billion worth of exports and would render security guarantees meaningless, Internet Australia said it created an "air of doubt" about whether Australian manufacturers had been subjected to a notice and alluded to the federal government's own concerns about Huawei which led to it being banned from 5G deployments.

Last month, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy Joe Cannataci said the Bill should be set aside.

"The Assistance and Access Bill is unlikely to be workable in some respects, and is an unnecessary infringement of basic liberties in other," Cannataci wrote. "Its aims do not justify a lack of judicial oversight, or independent monitoring, or the extremely troubling lack of transparency.

"This Bill needs to be put aside. It is fatally flawed."

In October, Dutton said the Bill was already watered down, and Labor should support it.

"I think there is a common-sense approach here. I think the government has crafted that common-sense approach, but it can only be enacted if it is supported in the Senate," Dutton told the National Press Club at the time. "We can't have on key national security Bills, compromises, because we're dealing with five or six or eight different senators all with different motivations, and pulling in every direction."

Dutton said Opposition Leader Bill Shorten needs to decide whether he is on the side of Silicon Valley multinationals or with "law enforcement and intelligence agencies in this country who want to protect Australians".

The Home Affairs minister added that tech giants need to be hounded to pay more tax in Australia, as they have breached user privacy for commercial advantage, and are protesting moves that will force them to help law enforcement in Western countries while simultaneously doing business in authoritarian growth markets.

"It is essential. Given we are talking about nine out of 10 national security investigations now being impeded because of the use of encryption, we need to deal with it. It doesn't go as far as some people would want, but it is a measured response," he added.

With AAP

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