In August of 2018, the Australian Government released details about the Assistance and Access Bill, which would legally oblige tech companies to grant access to encrypted user data when requested by law enforcement agencies.
The federal government and Labor party have now come to an agreement over the proposed laws; a “compromise that will deliver security enforcement agencies the powers they say they need over the Christmas period”, according to Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus.
While the specific reaches of the proposed laws have been hotly debated by the Government and the Opposition, this ‘compromise’ would see the laws be put in place “by the end of the week”, according to Attorney General Christian Porter, in time for the height of the Christmas period.
The bill in brief
While the specifics of the proposed bill are multi-faceted, the crux of it is to allow law enforcement to force access to encrypted communications of suspected criminals via the tech companies responsible for the messaging application in question.
The Australian Government claims that 95% of suspects currently under surveillance by the country’s spy agencies use a form of encrypted messaging app.
Complications arise, however, when considering the extent to which the government will be able to freely access its citizens’ personal user data, and for the tech companies that are forced to compromise their products’ security in order to put in place a decryption loophole, AKA a ‘backdoor’.
Such backdoors have been widely criticised by the tech community, including the likes of Apple, who have a notoriously staunch stance when it comes to its customers' privacy, and communication heavyweights Mozilla and Cisco as well.
The Government initially proposed that both federal and state law enforcement agencies would be able to demand access to the data, and the requests be applicable when investigating crimes related to terrorism, child sex offences, drugs, and guns.
However, The Labor Party insisted that the line be drawn at just terrorism and child sex offences, and that only federal law enforcement be allowed to request access to otherwise-encrypted user data.
Based on remarks from both parties, it appears that the compromise has led Labor to concede and accept the reach of the government’s initial proposal, although Dreyfus describes the current state of the bill as “far from perfect”.
In return, “the government will agree to proposals by Labor that will ensure there is better oversight and limitation of the powers in this bill, and better safeguards against potential unintended consequences”, Dreyfus added.
The finer details of the bill are yet to be revealed, but we’re likely to learn more over the coming days as it passes both houses of parliament and is finalised by the end of the week.