Labor will not back full encryption Bill as it offers interim deal again

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has said Labor cannot back the rushed PJCIS process for the proposed Assistance and Access Bill.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

The Australian Labor Party is set to break with the traditional bipartisanship in the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), with Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus saying his party cannot back the complete Bill.

However, Dreyfus has continued to push an idea first flagged publicly on Wednesday: That the PJCIS issue an interim report that waves through the proposed powers of agencies involved in counter-terrorism, and produces another report for the rest of the agencies with interception powers.

"Labor listened to the evidence put forward by agencies regarding the urgency of the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill (the 'Access Bill'), and we accepted it.

"Labor's position is that an interim version of the Access Bill should be passed, to give the agencies the powers they said were necessary now on an interim basis while the committee continued its scrutiny of the Access Bill," Dreyfus wrote in a letter to Attorney-General Christian Porter.

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

Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton called for the legislation to be passed in this sitting fortnight.

"I would call on all members of the committee to do what they can to deal with this matter in an expeditious way, because we do want to arm the police with the ability to look at these encrypted messages," Dutton said at the time.

Asked on Monday 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.

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

Dreyfus said the refusal of the government to work on the interim compromise despite written assurances of support was extremely disappointing.

"This would have clearly met the stated needs of the security agencies while allowing the committee to identify deficiencies in this rushed legislation, which could only result in recommendations to strengthen it, not weaken it," he wrote.

"The committee has also only recently become aware of concerns that this Bill could jeopardise security cooperation with the United States -- one of our key allies -- due to potential problems it causes for compliance with the US CLOUD Act. This is clearly very serious."

The Labor party would not be forced into supporting a Bill that is "unworkable and potentially weakens Australia's security", Dreyfus said.

In response to Labor's letter, Porter and Dutton cited the recent Bourke Street attack in Melbourne.

"Labor has sought to render the Bill ineffective by taking serious criminals, front-line state police, and encrypted messaging services out of its scope," the pair said.

"The government puts the security and prosperity of the Australian people at the top of its agenda."

The government is set to present the full Bill in Parliament next week.

"We will also present all reasonable amendments that have been proposed, including several by Labor, while rejecting those unreasonable propositions that would render the Bill ineffective," Porter and Dutton said.

"It is time for Bill Shorten to intervene and overrule Mark Dreyfus to ensure the safety of the Australian community."

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

Despite being told over and over again by experts that accessing encrypted communications will introduce weaknesses into the system, committee members continued to press that a solution is possible.

"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 said that should the Bill proceed, Senetas said it could find itself, and up to 200 jobs, moving offshore to avoid perception issues.

Overnight, two of the United Kingdom's highest cyber officers detailed how they believe law enforcement could access end-to-end encrypted communications.

Written by Technical Director of the National Cyber Security Centre Ian Levy and Technical Director for Cryptanalysis for GCHQ Crispin Robinson, the essay on Lawfare claims that end-to-end encryption remains, but an extra "end" for law enforcement.

"It's relatively easy for a service provider to silently add a law enforcement participant to a group chat or call," the pair said.

"The service provider usually controls the identity system, and so really decides who's who and which devices are involved -- they're usually involved in introducing the parties to a chat or call."

The pair wrote that what is being proposed is a discussion starter, and more work is needed.

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