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Australia set to spy on WhatsApp messages with encryption law

The legislation thrusts Australia to the heart of a global tug of war between tech companies and governments over privacy and security.

Bloomberg|
Dec 06, 2018, 09.07 AM IST
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CANBERRA: Australia is set to give its police and intelligence agencies the power to access encrypted messages on platforms such as WhatsApp, becoming the latest country to face down privacy concerns in the name of public safety. Amid protests from companies such as Facebook and Google, the government and main opposition struck a deal on Tuesday that should see the legislation passed by parliament this week. Under the proposed powers, technology companies could be forced to help decrypt communications on popular messaging apps, or even build new functionality to help police access data.

PM Scott Morrison has said the legislation is needed to help foil terrorist attacks. Critics say it is flawed and could undermine security across the Internet, jeopardising activities from online voting to market trading and data storage.

The legislation thrusts Australia to the heart of a global tug of war between tech companies and governments over privacy and security. In 2016, the US Justice Department clashed with Apple when the company refused to unlock an iPhone connected to a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. The UK government, meanwhile, has been deeply critical of WhatsApp's end-to-end encryption after the messaging service was used by a terrorist shortly before he killed five people in London in March 2017.

The Australian government's cyber security adviser Alastair MacGibbon said on Wednesday that authorities had been able to intercept telephone communications lawfully for almost 40 years, and needed new powers to keep pace with modern technology.

Law enforcers have been “going blind or going deaf” because of encryption, he said. “What this law does is help codify a conversation between police and telecommunication companies, that has to be reasonable, has to be proportionate, and has to be technically feasible,” he added.
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