Facebook and Google forced to give security agencies more access to some users’ messages

Facebook and Google forced to give security agencies more access to some users’ messages

Picture: AFP / Loic Venance.

A NEW law proposed to help police monitor criminal activity will force Facebook, WhatsApp and Google to weaken their encryption systems, opening them up to more hackers.

The cybersecurity law has been proposed to force global technology companies to unscramble encrypted messages sent by suspected extremists and other criminals at the request of police.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull today said the new law would be modelled on Britain’s Investigatory Powers Act, which was passed by the British Parliament in November and gave intelligence agencies some of the most extensive surveillance powers in the Western world.

The Australian bill that would allow courts to order tech companies to quickly unlock communications will be introduced to Parliament by November, according to Attorney-General George Brandis.

But Facebook has highlighted privacy concerns for its users under the proposed new laws.

“We appreciate the important work law enforcement does, and we understand their need to carry out investigations,” a Facebook spokeswoman told Fairfax.

“That’s why we already have a protocol in place to respond to requests where we can.

“At the same time, weakening encrypted systems for them would mean weakening it for everyone.”

Mr Turnbull said under the law internet companies would have the same obligations telephone companies do to help law enforcement agencies. Law enforcement agencies would need warrants to access the communications.

“We’ve got a real problem in that the law enforcement agencies are increasingly unable to find out what terrorists and drug traffickers and paedophile rings are up to because of the very high levels of encryption,” Mr Turnbull said.

“Where we can compel it, we will, but we will need the co-operation from the tech companies,” he said.

The government expected resistance from some tech companies, many of them based in the United States.

But according to Mr Turnbull, the companies “know morally they should” co-operate.

“There is a culture, particularly in the United States, a very libertarian culture, which is quite anti-government in the tech sector,” he said.

“I’m not suggesting this … is an easy nut to crack.”

Mr Brandis described the growth of encrypted communication applications such as WhatsApp, Signal, Facebook Messenger and iMessage as “potentially the greatest degradation of intelligence and law enforcement capability that we have seen in our lifetime.”

Mr Brandis said he met the British government’s chief cryptographer last week and believed it was technically possible to decode encrypted messages in a time frame that police needed to act.

This could be achieved without so-called back doors — built-in weaknesses that allowed a tech company access to a communication but could also leave it vulnerable to hackers, Mr Brandis said.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mike Phelan said the proportion of communication traffic monitored by Australian police that was encrypted had grown from three per cent to more than 55 per cent in only a few years. He said 65 per cent of organised crime investigations including terrorism and paedophile rings involved some kind of encryption.

— with AP

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