Does not compute: government, Labor at odds over new encryption spy powers

Negotiations over controversial encryption laws have broken down in acrimony, with the Morrison government accusing Labor of being soft on terrorists and paedophiles after the Opposition refused to buckle and support the new spy powers.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said the government had shattered the bipartisan approach to national security by demanding the encryption laws be rushed through Parliament next week, despite warnings from industry experts the laws would actually leave Australians vulnerable to threats.

Labor did offer to pass an interim bill – that would give police and spy agencies extra powers to snoop on people’s private electronic devices and communications – while concerns were addressed.

Instead Parliament’s powerful joint intelligence committee will issue a government report recommending the legislation be adopted with some changes, and a dissenting Labor report, unless talks over the weekend can salvage a compromise.

The proposed powers would require tech companies to help security agencies access encrypted communications used by suspects. While the government insists the new laws will not introduce systemic weaknesses or backdoors, a raft of tech companies have warned any new software or systems to water down encryption could be stolen or exploited by criminals, harming internet security for innocent Australians.

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Evidence from ASX-listed encryption company Senetas to the committee on Friday helped persuade Labor when non-executive chairman Francis Galbally described the laws as the digital equivalent of “dropping an atom bomb in order to find some nefarious character”.

He said if the US’s National Security Agency could have its hacking tools stolen, as happened in 2017, no agency was safe.

“It will be easier for cyber criminals, terrorists, to target systems and be able to break into those systems, steal data or actually do something. Control systems,” he said. “You will destroy, eventually, Australians’ own data protection. That’s what it is.”

Heightened risk

Following the Bourke Street terror attack and the foiling of a separate plot in Melbourne, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton pressed the committee to wrap up its inquiry so the laws could be passed in time for Christmas after agencies warned of a heightened risk during the festive season.

Mr Dreyfus wrote to Attorney-General Christian Porter saying Labor would not support the bill in its proposed form because of the impact on online security, the risk Australian technology companies could shift overseas, the potential to jeopardise security cooperation with the US and suggestions the legislation could breach parliamentary privilege.

“The government’s politicisation of national security has driven Labor to this point,” Mr Dreyfus wrote, criticising Mr Dutton and Scott Morrison for interfering in the committee’s work.

“It is clear in this case that your government has failed to listen to wide-ranging and significant concerns as submitted to the Committee, failed to consult adequately, and this will result in significantly deficient legislation.”

Mr Porter and Mr Dutton said Mr Dreyfus was pandering to Labor’s left-wing despite the advice of ASIO and Federal Police the laws were needed urgently to stop suspects “going dark”.

They vowed to push ahead with a vote next week, with some amendments, but urged Bill Shorten to overrule Mr Dreyfus.

“The Assistance and Access Bill will help frontline security and law enforcement agencies defeat terrorists, child sex offenders and other serious organised criminals using encryption to conceal their crimes,” they said.

The Alliance for a Safe and Secure Internet, which represents the tech sector including big companies like Google and Facebook, telcos and civil liberties groups, said it welcomed Labor’s decision to ensure a “fundamentally flawed bill is not rushed through Parliament for political expediency”.

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