Encrypted chat apps under fire from new Australian laws

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has today announced the government’s intent to introduce new legislation that would force (or “oblige”) social media and messaging companies to decrypt secure messages for the sake of national security.

Currently, the laws already invoke a degree of cooperation from telcos for accessing messages, although there is a substantial grey area when it comes to encryption and whose responsibility it would be to decrypt such messages. These proposed laws aim to address the issue specifically and deal with encrypted messaging services such as Signal and WhatsApp by increasing the government’s power over internet and tech companies.

The approach mirrors the current strategy utilised in the UK and is primarily in response to the use of encrypted messaging services by terrorist networks, but will also apply to sex offenders, traffickers and other particularly high-level crimes.

Thankfully, the method of using ‘backdoor’ access to encrypted messaging services is no longer in play — this idea would have involved building a flaw into such apps and services that only the security agencies would have access to, but the existence of such flaws can prove dangerous when ending up in the wrong hands.

The challenge so far

Attorney-General George Brandis fears that the growth of encrypted communications into near-ubiquity will “destroy our capacity to gather and act upon intelligence unless it’s addressed.”

Apparently, over 65% of lawfully-intercepted communications use some form of encryption, which is why this change in policy is expected to greatly assist the Australian Federal Police with their existing measures.

As it stands, Australian law dictates that telcos must gather and retain all users’ metadata for a period of two years in order to be used in cases of similar severity (i.e. terrorism, sex offence, etc.), but how this new development differs is that it pertains to the access of actual data in the form of communication contents.

While the laws were announced today, we don't yet have any concrete details about when they will take effect, but either way they will first half to pass through Parliament.